North Dakota farmers accused of spoiling spuds plead not guilty

Farm Forum

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Two brothers who operated a North Dakota potato farm pleaded not guilty on Feb. 26 to charges they intentionally spoiled their spud crop after the 2006 harvest in order to collect federal disaster payments.

Aaron Johnson, 50, and Derek Johnson, 47, along with their company, Johnson Potato, are charged in federal court with conspiracy and making false statements. Authorities say the scam involved more than $800,000 in insurance payments.

The arraignment in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein focused on Derek Johnson, who currently lives in British Columbia. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Chase questioned whether Johnson should be allowed to return to Canada before the case is decided.

Defense attorney Ben Thomas said Derek Johnson came to Fargo on his own accord on Feb. 26 without being served with a summons. Johnson first learned about the indictment on social media, Thomas said.

“He had no obligation to be here today. He did so,” said Thomas, who added that it shows Johnson’s willingness to cooperate.

Klein said that while she prefers to have clients within a reasonable distance of the courthouse, she backed the request by Thomas but warned that Johnson would “have to face the music on these charges.” Both brothers were released on promises to appear in court.

Trial is set for April 22.

Authorities say the brothers raised irrigated potatoes near Cooperstown, in central North Dakota, and following the harvest stored the crop in a nearby warehouse rather than sell them. Court documents do not show the amount of potatoes involved or say how much the brothers could have made if they had sold them.

The Johnsons are accused of applying chemicals, including a substance designed for dissolving solid materials in septic systems, and adding spoiled and frozen potatoes to their stored crop in 2006. Portable heaters allegedly were used to heat the warehouse above 80 degrees and make the potatoes deteriorate faster.

Once the potatoes rotted the men reported the loss to their insurance company and said the crop was lost due to naturally caused diseases, prosecutors said. The brothers allegedly made false statements to law enforcement and agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Klein said both men qualified for court-appointed lawyers primarily because of their liabilities. A spokesman for the federal public defender’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.