Organic fertilizer fraud nets 364-day prison term, plus fine

11/08/2012 02:55:00 PM
Coral Beach

The man who admitted to defrauding the organic industry by selling more than $6.5 million of his non-compliant Biolizer XN fertilizer begins a 364-day federal prison term Nov. 9.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer imposed the sentence Nov. 7. It includes a $125,000 fine and three years of probation following the prison term for the former owner of California Liquid Fertilizer.

For the first six months of that probation, Peter Townsley, 50, must live in a halfway house and perform 1,000 hours of public service in organic agriculture, preferably with community organic farming projects, the judge said.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco had requested a 46-month sentence with three years’ probation and a $125,000 fine.

A federal probation officer recommended a one-year sentence based on interviews with Townsley and information presented in the case. The maximum sentence possible was 40 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.

“It’s important that Townsley got a fairly stiff sentence,” said Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity at San Juan Batista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm, one of the victims of the fertilizer fraud.

“It should serve as a clear warning to those who would violate the regulations that organic integrity is strong and that justice will be served on perpetrators of organic fraud.”

Townsley admitted to mail fraud earlier this year in relation to the case.

In a plea agreement, Townsley admitted to knowingly changing the formula for his fertilizer and mailing annual statements to the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) that said Biolizer XN met requirements for use in certified organic operations.

He said he knowingly sold the non-compliant fertilizer from April 2000 through December 2006, receiving gross revenue from it of between $6.5 million and $6.9 million.

Before imposing the sentence, Judge Breyer received comments from several interested parties, including Earthbound Farm; Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif.; Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program; the California Department of Food and Agriculture; fertilizer company Advanced Marine Technologies, New Bedford, Mass.; and Peggy Miars, executive director of OMRI.

All of the comments stressed the ripple effect Townsley’s actions had on the organic industry because it raised doubts among consumers and undermined the public trust in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program.

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Florida  |  November, 09, 2012 at 07:27 AM

What are the SPECIFIC ingredients that were changed? What is the REAL difference between what he claimed to use and what he actually used?

Coral Beach    
November, 12, 2012 at 11:13 AM

John, In his plea agreement, Peter Townsley said Biolizer XN was initially made from "ocean going fish, fish by-products, feathermeal and water." He said in his plea he knowingly and intentionally changed it "from fish and feathermeal to a product that contained ammonium chloride." Townsley also states in his plea that he later changed the formula again, switching the ammonium chloride to ammonium sulfate. Townsley admitted he knew the ammonium chloride and ammonium sulfate products were not approved for use in organic farming. He also admitted he intentionally provided false information to OMRI for annual certifications stating that Biolizer XN was made from fish and feathermeal. Coral Beach, staff writer

Winnipeg, Canada  |  November, 09, 2012 at 10:12 AM

A year, are you kidding me, this person knew what he was doing from 2000 to 2006 and recieved over 6.5 million for doing it. Sign me up l'll do two years standing on my head, if l knew l would have 6 million reasons, when l got out. What about the public compensation, the illnesses he may have caused, the reputation of other growers world wide and their certifications, not to mention all the years spent on getting certified, the sentence dosn't fit the crime, so how can we expect, other people to be honest in their daily operations. The real crime, is how the justice system is letting the criminal, dictate the out come for the rest of the us.

November, 09, 2012 at 11:54 AM

Robert do you know what gross revenue means. He sold the fertilizer for 6.5 million. He might have only made 5,000 a year in profit. Or even lost money.

Bancroft, Wisconsin  |  November, 09, 2012 at 11:06 AM

This is the reason I get angry with organic produce. It is a fine idea and practice, but realize the things that are touted to be so much healthier many times are not. I notice when conventional ag has any gatherings such as Farm Technology Days, organic is always included as a part of agriculture. But when organic has anything, they make it known how "bad" conventional is, (their opinion). It would be much better to work together, and not bad mouth one or the other.

Arbuckle, CA  |  November, 09, 2012 at 06:32 PM

I feel bad for the organic fertilizer companies who were playing by the rules, and had to compete with somebody who could pull out data showing how much more nitrogen he had in his solutions. Like steroids in baseball, you have to nip it in the bud before the only way to compete is to cheat.

Midwest  |  November, 09, 2012 at 07:37 PM

I feel the real culprits are the organic industry itself. Someone please tell me if a cell which has a nitrogen atom absorbed through it's cell wall, cares if that atom comes from commercial fertilizer, organic fertilizer, manure or a dead fish. Chemicals in their basic form do not differ because they came from different sources. I think this part of the organic movement is totally bogus.

Northern CA  |  November, 10, 2012 at 09:27 AM

George- You are totally missing the boat. Some people eat organic because they feel it is healthier. Others eat organic because they feel the process is more benign and/or sustainable. Converting fossil fuels into nitrogen is not the same as composting fish byproducts with kelp.

November, 10, 2012 at 06:43 PM

Most Organic farmers that I know don't act that way, they're too busy working their butts off to care.

November, 10, 2012 at 06:45 PM

organic isn't about that N atom, it's about how that N atom gets to the plant you're confusing conventional with organic ag

Oregon  |  November, 12, 2012 at 08:54 PM

It's the runoff from the application of these fertilizers that the problem, not with the plants themselves.

Dong Hyun Kim    
December, 05, 2012 at 12:37 PM

I heard about this dude on the discovery channel! I think he got of too easy. False advertising organic fertilizer let alone any false advertising should carry more that a one year sentence to it!

Mischa Popoff    
Greenville Texas  |  September, 10, 2013 at 09:47 PM

Anyone who thinks this is an isolated case just fell off the turnip truck. Under the USDA National Organic Program there are not surprise inspections. There is only extensive and exhaustive record-keeping and record checking, the same system that allowed Bernie Madoff to pull off to pull off his Ponzi scheme for so many years. Like President Reagan used to say about the Soviets: "Trust but verify."

Karen Lawson    
Blaine, WA  |  September, 10, 2013 at 11:04 PM

He said he knowingly sold the non-compliant fertilizer from April 2000 through December 2006, receiving gross revenue from it of between $6.5 million and $6.9 million. 364 day & $125k fine? BFD! Where do I sign up for such an exchange!?! I'll take $6.9 million in exchange for a year at a country club prision! And I won't poison anybody to get it!

Karen Lawson    
Washington State  |  September, 10, 2013 at 11:07 PM

AMEN! Trust but verify. And I'd add give out true punishments! Not a wink and a slap on the wrist!

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