Sunday, August 3, 2003

Kentucky farmers wormed out of more than $5 million

By Wayne Tompkins
The (Louisville) Courier-Journal

BEAVER DAM, Ky. - Months after being victimized in what Attorney General Ben Chandler's office calls the biggest scam in Kentucky agricultural history, Angie Decker and about 800 other farmers are stranded with lost investments - and barns full of worms.

"We are $85,000 in the hole right now," Decker said. "We have other sources of income. ... But this has hurt us majorly."

Inside a dark, hot, humid building that she rents for $600 a month in this western Kentucky town, Decker tends to a vast array of 106 4-by-8-foot compost-filled boxes where as many as 8 million earthworms eat, reproduce and create a powerful soil enhancer.

Decker said B&B Worm Farms, the Meeker, Okla., company that contracted to buy worms from her and nearly 3,000 other farmers across the country, had assured her that many of her worms would be long gone by now - headed for promising uses in everything from fertilizer to waste management.

Promises of guaranteed money and easy labor and a slick sales pitch, amid uncertainty over tobacco's future, had attracted Kentucky farmers by the hundreds.

Instead, B&B's promises have disappeared.

B&B's founder died suddenly in January; farmers stopped getting paid; and in April regulators from Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma filed lawsuits against the company. Today, B&B is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, creditors and investigators from several states are poring over the business's remains and millions of worms are stuck with nowhere to go.

B&B sold contracts to farmers in amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to as much as $60,000 to grow worms. The company supplied worms, then bought the worms' descendants for amounts ranging from $7 to $9 a pound - guaranteed.

B&B would then sell the worms to what it pitched as a growing market of industrial users.

Worms have shown promise as living garbage disposals that can ease demand on landfills and turn what they eat into an effective and environmentally friendly soil enhancer, said Terry Garmon, marketing director for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. However, those markets are still in their early stages and are not yet big enough to be cost effective for most users, he said.

Industrial users failed to materialize in anywhere near the numbers needed to justify the 3,000 growers B&B signed up.

Investigators said the company appeared to stay afloat in part by purchasing worms from contract farmers such as Decker and reselling them to newly signed worm farmers.

Kentucky farmers are out a combined $5.75 million in contracts they purchased to grow worms for B&B, Chandler's office said.

Regulators concede there is little chance of recovering any significant amount of money.

Gregory Bradley was the visionary, founder and driving force behind B&B. Bradley's sudden death Jan. 26 at age 40 and quick cremation - a death certificate was issued but no autopsy was performed - just at the time his enterprise began to unravel has spurred rumors about whether he is actually dead.

John Russell, a Tulsa, Okla., attorney representing Lynn Bradley, who took over the business after her husband died, dismisses speculation about Greg Bradley's fate.

"I have no reason to believe that he is alive and I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the death certificate," Russell said.

Now farmers are seeking markets for the worms and their nutrient-rich manure. Some are trying to form a growers' cooperative and others are staking their fate in a startup venture in Louisiana. Still more are dumping their worms and writing off their losses.

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