[Market-farming] Finally, Justice!!!

Ploughshare gjbrever at midwestinfo.net
Fri Jun 8 14:34:59 EDT 2007


Here's the article about how this one CSA Farmer (me) got swindled by our 
local RCD program (a nonprofit with close ties to NRCS.  By the way, I 
received a phone call last week from the heads of the Congressional 
Agriculture Committee asking for my input on the new farm bill in regards to 
funding these RCD's.  So we have been shaking up Washington.  We also have 
shook up our county and folks in St. Paul pretty good too.  This scandal has 
been covered by most newspapers through out MN and many local television 
news outlets have picked it up as well.   They have focused on it because it 
has been such a bizarre story.  I keep on reminding them though that this is 
not about this Executive director-- we all know that their are dishonest 
people in this world--the bigger issue is lack of oversight by this board 
and also the feds.

I am asking folks in MN to contact Collin Peterson, Norm Coleman, and Amy 
Klobuchar and demand them to thoroughly investigate the failures of NRCS to 
provide oversight.

--P.S.--we still have not been paid nor have we even received an apology by 
the NRCS or the WesMin board.

--Gary



An offer too good to be true
Matt McKinney, Star Tribune

ALEXANDRIA, MINN. - Farmer Gary Brever thought he had struck a nearly 
perfect deal.

A local nonprofit group, Wesmin Resource Conservation and Development 
Council, had offered to help him grow organic vegetables and deliver them to 
area food shelves. The nonprofit would apply for grants from wealthy groups 
to cover his costs.

Wesmin's executive director, Sheila Marie Barsness, promised funding and 
told Brever to start giving away $40,000 in tomatoes, spinach and carrots.

Nearly two years later, Brever has yet to be paid, and Barsness is at the 
core of a scandal that jeopardizes Wesmin and casts a pall over the 
40-year-ol! d federal program that created it and still provides operational 
funding.

Minnesota's attorney general investigated and filed a civil settlement last 
week that orders the board to pay $58,000 to Brever and a woman also misled 
by Barsness. The board says the amount is beyond its means.

Neither Barsness nor her attorney was available for comment.

In Washington, funding for such conservation councils was already in 
jeopardy. The Bush administration has proposed slashing federal support 
nearly in half: from $51.3 million to $25.9 million.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the House Democrat representing western 
Minnesota, including Alexandria, is using his position as chairman of the 
House Agriculture Committee to fight for full funding. Peterson, long a 
supporter of Wesmin and other such groups, placed Wesmin's problems squarely 
on the board. "Clearly they hired this person," he said.

Still, he makes it clear that lack of oversight of ! such groups is a 
problem and that he intends to look more clos! ely at w hat happened at 
Wesmin.

Peterson is overseeing the drafting of the 2007 farm bill, which includes 
the programs.

"It does not surprise me that you could have had a situation where people 
aren't watching as much as they should have," he said, noting that Congress 
has found similar problems with other farm bill funding. "That should not be 
happening."

John Beckwith, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who manages 
Minnesota's resource councils, notes that, while independent audits are 
encouraged, they're not required.

Leveraging federal dollars

The 1962 farm bill authorized resource conservation and development 
councils, which were designed to get local community leaders involved in 
rural development programs. Part of the plan was for local councils to raise 
their own grants leveraging limited federal money that typically paid for a 
local staff person. The 375 councils nationwide have, on average, raised $8 
for ! every $1 in federal support, according to the National Association of 
RC&D Councils, its Washington-based advocate. Projects nationwide include 
building fences and walking trails and hiring prisoners to rebuild discarded 
bicycles.

Wesmin, created in 1962 and one of the first councils in the country, has 
funneled $85 million into about 640 projects in the 14 western Minnesota 
counties it serves.

It hired Barsness in 2002. By 2004, she had convinced the board to give her 
a 10 percent raise, to $16.50 an hour, promising funds from a program that 
gives grants in the Gulf Coast region. (The funds never materialized.)

Brever met Barsness in summer 2005. He says she was so taken with his "Food 
for Folk" program to feed the poor that she promised $40,000 in grant money 
and offered to expand the program. She convinced Alexandria fitness 
instructor Natalie Heckert to create a fitness component for the project. 
Heckert quit her job and spent $15,000 on the ! project.

When Brever, who says he gave away one-third! of his crop that summer, still 
hadn't been paid in early 2006 he became concerned. When he confronted 
Barsness, she said she was close to getting grants from the Paul Newman 
Foundation and the Otto Bremer Foundation.

Suspicious, Brever called both groups, neither of which had heard of Food 
for Folk.

Brever went to the board, made up mostly of county commissioners, but it 
didn't believe him. "They said what I was doing was character assassination 
and threatened me with lawsuits," he said.

"They thought I was just some radical organic farmer and that I was just 
trying to agitate. That may be true -- because I am a radical organic farmer 
and I was agitating -- but I had the evidence to back it up."

Fake faxes and dead friends

So Brever went to the attorney general's office. State investigators 
interviewed Barsness twice, once in August and again in September. 
Investigators concluded that Barsness, 37, went as far as to register fake! 
fax numbers and addresses to groups she claimed she was contacting for 
grants. She even claimed a friend had written a letter that cleared her of 
wrongdoing, but the friend died while traveling in Australia, according to 
investigators.

Wesmin fired Barsness in December. And last week Douglas County prosecutor 
Christopher Karpan filed three charges of felony theft by false 
representation against Barsness. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 
years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Lyle Hovland, the Wesmin chairman, said that "it's going to be a struggle" 
for the nonprofit to pay Brever and Heckert, the fitness instructor.

He said Barsness performed at least some of the work she was responsible 
for, winning a $700,000 federal conservation grant, though that will now be 
forfeited or passed along to another RC&D.

"We don't have staff now or resources," Hovland said.

Asked about the nine-month delay between when Brever first c! omplained 
about Barsness and her eventual firing, Hovland was ! apologet ic.

"I realize that sometimes it's ponderous getting to the truth," he said.

"I'm sure he's impatient. To his credit, he saw things sooner than we did."

Matt McKinney . 612-673-7329 . mckinney at startribune.com




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