Farmers refuse to pay Agricorp
Agricorp says 4,500 farmers owe $30 million and scoured 11 years of records to prove it
By James Pascual
A battle over $30 million is heating up between feisty farmers and Agricorp.
About 4,500 Ontario farmers were surprised to receive letters recently informing them they owed the province money, on average about $6,000 per farmer.
While some farmers said they never applied for a loan, itís no loan. Itís overpayments made from support programs, corrections to program forms wrongly completed, or processing errors. The provinceís manager of risk management programs, Agricorp, has gone back 11 years in search of money owed and wants the money paid back over the next three years.
In some cases, farmers owe as much as $100,000.
While some farmers have reluctantly decided to pay, others flat out refuse. Montague Township councillor Vince Carroll, in Lanark County, said there is no way he is going to pay. Agricorp said he owes $2,478 but Carroll says he was unaware that he received a loan and there is no paper trail to prove it.
"Agricorp canít take everyone to court," he argued, saying that his lawyer told him he would win in small claims court. He added that if Agricorp chases farmers, "They will go after guys who owe big money."
An Agricorp source said only 10 per cent of farmers replied to the first letters and a second, more strongly-worded letter is in the mail this month.
Ottawa lawyer Don Good has been getting calls from disgruntled farmers and now has 18 clients he is representing. He said theyíve got a good chance of winning.
While the statute of limitations has run out, the provincial government can sneak around the law in many cases based on being an "exception to the general rule," Good said. But he argued that "negligence" in collecting money owed is not one of the exceptions outlined in section 16 of the Limitations Act.
Agricorp has to prove that negligence is an exception to the general rule, Good said. He added that the province is tight on money and looking for any debt recovery. "It wants to get any money it can get its hands on," he said. "Farmers should look at (their case) very carefully. There may be grounds for a fair majority of them."
He added, however, that Agricorp will not go away quietly after spending time and money on determining the debts of thousands of farmers and mailing them letters. "My general feeling is that Agricorp will dig in its heels," he said. However, if farmers resist, the province will discover itís no longer easy money and will have to weigh the cost of fighting and the likelihood of cost recovery and how much, he said.
Some farmers could fight this on their own in small claims court and find that the province is willing to make a negotiated settlement of partial payment, he said.
Renfrew County beef farmer Peter Tippens was told he owed $18,000 for money received in 2007. He used the money to put up a fabric-covered structure.
He said he wrote Agricorp a letter a month ago offering to pay back 50 per cent or heíll take them to the Farm Debt Review Board. He hasnít heard back. "Agricorp should be held to account, not farmers," he said.