This episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast, brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, is a departure from normal no-till history, but no less important. This episode details how a single no-tiller by the name of Percy Schmeiser fought an army of lawyers as agribusiness giant Monsanto accused the farmer of stealing its Roundup Ready canola seed. Perhaps you’ve seen one of the movies on the subject, including the recent Percy vs. Goliath major motion picture that was released in 2020 and starred Academy Award winner Christopher Walken.
Percy died in 2020 without seeing the film, but No-Till Farmer and Farm Equipment’s Mike Lessiter arranged for his son, John, a friend and colleague of Lessiter Media staff, to share memories with you today. John recalls the personal experience of that drawn out legal battle, its outcome and its lasting significance for everyone in the ag industry.
If you are interested in more no-till history, you’ll find great stories like these and many more in the newly released 448-page second edition of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming that includes 32 more pages than the first edition. Order your copy here.
Watch the VIDEO REPLAY of this podcast.
No-Till Influencers & Innovators podcast series is brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, the original thiosulfate liquid fertilizer.
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Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast, brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, the original thiosulfate liquid fertilizer. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor of No-Till Farmer. For a special episode of our popular no-till history series, No-Till Farmer and Farm Equipment president, Mike Lessiter, pinch hits for his dad, Frank, in interviewing his friend and machinery industry colleague, John Schmeiser, who is the COO of the North American Equipment Dealers Association.
John details a very personal story of how his late dad, Percy, a no-till farmer and equipment dealer, threw down versus Monsanto in a David versus Goliath lawsuit that went all the way to Canada's Supreme Court. The case not only garnered national attention on farmers' rights but also spurred two movies, including a major motion picture in 2020, starring Christopher Walken as John's dad, Percy, in the movie by the same name.Mike Lessiter:
Hello, everybody. We're here with John Schmeiser, the Chief Operating Officer of the North American Equipment Dealers Association, who represents the national interests of the farm machinery dealers out there. But we're here mostly to talk about his late father, Percy, who made a very significant contribution to farmers' rights in how he stood up to agribusiness and Monsanto back in the day.
I've had the pleasure of knowing John a long time and have actually seen two movies about the family here. And those of you who are familiar with Percy or remember him or have seen the documentary, you're going to hear a very familiar voice. John, I watched the documentary, and I hear Percy in your words all the time. You guys share the same voice, don't you?John Schmeiser:
You know what? I think that's the first time that somebody has ever said that to me, and it's not a bad thing.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, I heard it in some of the mannerisms. It came true here. I also think I saw you on the documentary on the walk back from the judgment wearing a green wind shirt that I suspect might have been a Saskatchewan Roughriders apparel.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, so the thing they say about people who grow up in Saskatchewan, you just never forget where you're from. And there's two things in Saskatchewan that people, they look at and that are very important, and that is number one, it's the beer you drink and the football team that you cheer for. Those are two very important things, so when you leave Saskatchewan like I have, you still have to cheer for the Riders. I think that's mandatory.
And yeah, that probably was me because when the trial was on at the lower court level, it was on for two weeks in duration, and I think I was there for about half of the court sittings. There was a lot of media interest, and so going into the courtroom and coming out of the courtroom, there's cameras waiting all the time. So, I did show up in a number of clips [inaudible 00:03:15]. I'm sure I look a little bit younger than I do today, though, in those clips.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, you were also sporting white pants, which I understand you're not supposed to do after a certain month of the year, but we'll let that one go.John Schmeiser:
That was in June, so I was safe. I was on safe ground, man.Mike Lessiter:
All right, good. Well, the main theme today is going to be to update or remind the new generation of farmer what was at stake and what your family did, how it changed the landscape. I guess to kickstart it, I'd like to have you talk a little bit about the family farm operation up in Saskatchewan. We'll start there and then filter our way in.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, so my great-grandfather came to Saskatchewan in 1903 from Austria via Minnesota. So, my grandfather was born in Minnesota. His wife, my grandmother, was born in South Dakota, and it was a very common pathway of immigration that was organized through the Catholic church at that time. So, my great-grandfather came to Canada to farm. The opportunity to farm in Austria just was not there for him.
So, he started with 160 acres of land that the Canadian government gave to him at no charge because he homesteaded on that land. Eventually, my grandfather's older brother took over that original family farm and grew it, and my grandfather went off on a different route and started working in a hotel and eventually buying a hotel. And then decided to get into the farm equipment business.
In 1931, he set up a single store, J I Case dealership in Bruno, Saskatchewan. For those familiar with the province, it's about 60 miles east of Saskatoon where CNH has a very big plant, so about 60 miles east of that plant. That same year when he set up the farm equipment dealership, he also bought his first quarter of land that was about a mile north of where the dealership was located. And that was the start.
Then my father got involved in the dealership in the late 40s, was married in 1952, and took over the dealership in 1955. It changed from a J I Case dealership at that time to a John Deere dealership. And at the same time, every five years or so, Dad would add another quarter of land. So now, when my dad stopped farming ... We still have all the family farmland in our possession. It's 1,200 acres. So, the farm grew at the same time as the dealerships grew.
We dropped John Deere in 1962 and took on Kasha in 1962. That became White. It became Demco. Set up a second location in 1986 where we had New Holland. And then in 2003, my dad and my brother-in-law who were involved in the dealership, sold out to a neighboring, multi-store New Holland dealership called Farm World.
So, when I grew up, I had the privilege of working both in the dealership and on the farm. Primarily, we grew wheat, barley, oats, a lot of canola, even grew mustard as well, and they primarily stayed with those commodities. We never had livestock. It was always grains and oil seeds. And when I would come home from school when I was in high school, I was going one or two paths. It was either going to be in the dealership doing something, or I was going to be on the farm.
I think the first time I ever set foot in a tractor where I was actually doing something, like pulling an implementer or working with a front-end loader or picking stones or something like that, I was probably 12 or 13 years old, maybe even earlier than that, so very, very familiar with the farming side, very familiar with the dealership side. And the funny thing, Mike, when I graduated college, I decided to pursue a different path.
But having said all of that, the expectation was on me that the year college was done or the last semester was done, I would come home, and I'd be working on the farm or work in the dealership. I would come home at harvest time to help combine, and I haven't had to do that in the last couple of years, but I'm still one of those people where I have to drive through the countryside when harvest is going on. It's just one of those things in my blood.
I'm making mental notes when I drive by fields about what stage they're at, and then maybe two or three weeks down the road about how the crops have matured. It's just something that's just stuck with me, very similar to when I drive by an equipment dealership, where I'm always checking out how much used equipment they have on the lot.
So, I classify myself as very fortunate today to work for the Dealers Association that works with our customers and our farming customers. Our dealership, our success is dependent on our farmer customers, but I know that angle as well. For me to have the opportunity to work for the Dealers Association where our members are serving the customers, I could say on one hand you could say that's a great fit for my upbringing. On the other hand, I've just used it as an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to take something that was ingrained in me from an early age and be able to support that sector.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, yeah. Outstanding alignment there of these two things coming together. Your family farm in Western Canada is a hotbed of no-till. Your region embraced no-tillage far quicker than most of the rest of the continent. What can you tell me about your earliest recollections of no-till and then why your dad and the neighbors were interested in this new method of doing things?John Schmeiser:
Yeah, so the one thing about Saskatchewan is it's windy all the time. And I just recall when growing up about seeing just big clouds of dust in the air from our summer fallow lands. And our customers at the time, the practice of farmers at the time was cultivate for weeds during the summer fallow year. And maybe we would have crops in for three, four years, then we summer fallow just because the lack of moisture. It's all dry land farming, so everybody would summer fallow. That was one of the responsibilities that I had.
But we had some very forward-thinking, shortline manufacturers based in Western Canada that were the leaders, the innovators when it came to zero till. These were companies like Borgo and Morris to name a few, and they really [inaudible 00:10:14], acknowledging that erosion was a problem. That's why I think in Western Canada, our customers adopted this technology a little earlier than anywhere else in North America just because of the conditions were very supportive of no-till.
We were a Borgo dealer. My father was a personal friend of Frank Borgo who started Borgo Industries, and they were one of the first ones out there. And very quickly, because of the brand reputation and the product designed for Western Canadian farming conditions, I think that's why it took off. There was trust placed in these manufacturers. They had a good support network with dealers, but it made a lot of sense just from a practical point of view.
Today, I just look back and think about it, that we would cultivate a summer fallow field probably three times over the summer, and then after winter, we'd cultivate it one more time by preparing the seed bed proceeding. And then we pray for rain. So, on four separate occasions, we are taking the moisture out of the soil, and then hoping that the rains hit at a time of [inaudible 00:11:35].
And what's really happening now is productivity has just increased substantially with zero till because I don't think the amount of rainfall we get has changed at all since that time period in the 70s or 80s, but the bushels per acre certainly has because we're preserving more moisture in the soil. I think it's just the credit to the manufacturers in Western Canada that developed this technology that has been adopted worldwide.
One thing too, Mike, was surprising to me when I started in this role, I was a little surprised that no-till, how later it was adopted in other parts in North America because, by the time I started working with the Association, there was less than 5% of the farmers were not using no-till. Whereas that was a much higher number in the U.S., so I was surprised by that. I just assumed that it was adopted like it was in Saskatchewan across North America, but it hadn't. I think we're at the point now where it's pretty much that is the most common.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, we're getting there, but Western Canada's still leading the way by a long shot, typically. I've talked to people who said, it's been up here. It's been commonplace for decades up here. It's still struggling to become mainstream in many parts of the U.S., but well, kudos to you and your manufacturers, the dealers, and the farmers up there who figured it out and it made work. I know it has a lot to do with champions in the local area that makes something like that happen.John Schmeiser:
For those two companies, Borgo and Morris, they were ... Morris was known for their rod weeder. Borgo is known for their cultivator, and they adapted to survive because there's absolutely no way that those two companies could survive on those foundation products that they had when they started with. And they've also moved into air drills, air seeders as well too, and some other products. So, they've evolved as well, but their incredible foresight and the ability to create these products is really a success story.Mike Lessiter:
Good. Well, I think we'll kind of change to the personal story we have here. And I got to tell you that my dad, Frank, and I, my mom, and my son all sat down to watch the big movie starring Christopher Walken as your father, Percy. It was Percy versus Goliath. I want to bring this story back out for our listeners, our viewers today, to understand what that was like and the impact it had. I guess if you'll take us to mid-90s when Roundup Ready canola came in and pick up the story as you remember it, what laid ahead for your father unknowingly come harvest time in that year in '96, '97, I think it was, right?John Schmeiser:
Yeah. Yeah, so my understanding is Monsanto came out with Roundup Ready corn and beans around '94, '95, but it was 1996 when Roundup Ready canola was introduced. The one thing about Saskatchewan that is very picturesque in the summertime is canola field after canola field in full bloom. That bright yellow flower, it's just something that's home for me.
And when Monsanto released Roundup Ready canola, it was on a very limited basis in their first year. There were some early adopters, and Dad was not one of them. They had a series of informational meetings, and Dad had never gone to one of those informational meetings. But we were really only into the first full year of Roundup Ready canola being widely grown. And by widely grown, I still think it was maybe 30 to 40% of the canola that was grown in the province at the time.
Dad's approach on this was ... First of all Dad, my dad is not or was not an organic farmer. He never was an organic farmer. We used chemicals. In fact, we had a fertilizer dealership one time. We sold chemicals as well too. We used weed control chemicals in our farm. We even had custom spraying out of the dealership, so never been an organic farmer. But when Roundup Ready was introduced ... In some conversations he had with other farmers ... and keep in mind, farmers are coming into the dealership all the time ... he didn't exactly agree with the approach of the distribution of the chemical because what we were doing in canola, we were putting pre-immersion chemicals into the soil.
So, Dad's concern was, if you're spraying after the weeds are coming up in the dryland farming area, the weeds are going to be taking precious moisture away from the canola plants. Philosophically, he had an issue with it, and that's why he never purchased the seed, never went to any of the information meetings because the practice, what he was using by incorporating chemicals into the soil, he thought was better water conservation.
The cost difference between incorporating the chemicals into the soil like we were doing or spraying with Roundup was significant. Roundup was considerably cheaper, but when you take the technology use fee that Monsanto asked for for $15 an acre plus the cost of Roundup, it was pretty much a wash. So, that was another factor that played into Dad's thinking.
Fast forward, there's all these stories going around that Monsanto had hired an investigations firm, and what they'd done is gone to the county or in Saskatchewan, we call them rural municipalities. They got a map, and they would go out and do samples on everybody's conventional canola. So, they would match up the map with their database of who was a licensed Roundup Ready user who had signed the technology use agreement, and then they went to all these other growers and said, "Hey, you're growing our product, and we have a patent on it. You don't have permission to do it. Pay us this money." And pretty much every farmer that was confronted with that has capitulated and paid them, paid $15 an acre.
So, we had heard that this was going on. Fast forward to the next year, we had grown 1,030 acres of canola or seeded 1,030 acres of canola that year. About six weeks after seeding, we received one of these demand letters from Monsanto. So, Dad found that interesting because he had saved his seed from the previous year, had it cleaned at a mill called Humboldt Flour Mills. How could he be using Monsanto's seed when he took it out of his bins from the year before, had it cleaned, and treated, and then seeded?
So, he found it quite ludicrous. But earlier in the spring before he seeded, he saw some volunteer canola plants growing along the highway. This was on one 160-acre piece of field, and this is also the main rally to a canola crushing plant. So, he didn't think anything of it. He sprayed them with Roundup, and about half the plants died, half didn't. Then he immediately got the cultivator out and tilled it under.
Now, this was also a summer fallow field the year before, and so he never really gave it a second thought until this demand letter came. And then the demand letter said, "We've done tests on all of your fields, and you're growing Roundup Ready canola without a license. Pay us $15,000." I'm sorry, "$15 times 1,030 acres." I think about just under $19,000. "Pay us this $19,000, and we'll go away. And if you don't, we'll take you to court." And the one thing that my father was at the time not looking for a fight, very principled, knew that this was going on, and obviously, thought he could reason with them and say that, "Hey, there was a mistake here, and you guys have made a mistake." That's really what started the whole legal process after that.Mike Lessiter:
So, they had been sampling on his field without his knowledge. Letter comes, says you need to open your wallet and make this go away. Tell us how he reacted at that point.John Schmeiser:
Well, first of all, it was shock and disbelief. And then he went to our family legal counsel, family friend, longtime family friend, and shared him the letter. And he said words to the effect, you have two options. Pay it, and it goes away, or you can fight it. But if you fight it, this is going to be something where they'll try and bleed you dry. And the lawyer shared that advice because he had a number of other farmers who had walked into his office with the same letter, and one of them even thought about pursuing this against Monsanto and going to court with him. I think he already got to 15 or $20,000 in legal bills and said, "This is going to get out of control."
So, that was the advice that Dad got. And the other thing that was happening at the same time, which was really amusing ... I say amusing now, but at the time we were rather curious about this. When you signed the agreement with Monsanto, whether it was the technology use agreement or that demand letter, and paid them, it was all done under a point of confidentiality. Nothing was to be public on this.
Well, the major farm newspaper in Western Canada at the time was the Western Producer, and weeks after Dad got the demand letter, all of a sudden, there's this story in the Western Producer sharing that Monsanto has filed a demand letter against Percy Schmeiser for use of Roundup Ready canola. So, we're wondering why in the world did this all of a sudden end up in the media? And I think everybody can come up with a theory on that.
All of a sudden, this became very public, and I think that strengthened my father's resolve a little bit. Now that this was public and other farmers knew, our customers knew, I think sometimes he feels he was backed into a corner to try and defend himself and clear his name. He's very principled. And it was, "I'm not going to stir up a check for $19,000 for something that I didn't do." That's, I think, where he went down the road of standing up in court to them.Mike Lessiter:
Would he have been considered more of a public figure than the average farmer because of the dealership and some of his other involvement?John Schmeiser:
Yeah, absolutely. So he was a member of the Legislative Assembly, which, to your American viewers, is the equivalent of a State House representative. He was the mayor of the community for 25 years. He was on a lot of boards and commissions, nursing home boards, Saskatchewan Real Estate Board, through the dealership chair of the White Farm Equipment Dealers Council. I think we had a very successful business, and so I think one can make the conclusion that was part of the reason that this was made public was because of the profile that Dad had received. But at the same time, I think that just strengthened his resolve to fight the issue.Mike Lessiter:
So, he is now at this, as a man of principle. I'm not going to write this check. I'm going to hang in here and do what's right for the farmers everywhere. Tell us what happened next and then the chronology of all that ensued from there on out.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, so first of all, my dad's younger brother used to be the dean of law at the University of Saskatchewan. So we had some, what I would call, free legal advice coming from my uncle. And he referred us to a patent lawyer in Saskatoon, and that individual's name was Terry Zakreski. That's what started the relationship with Dad and Terry, and that's where they started planning then for the court proceedings. Monsanto did not move from their position. It's either you pay us the $15 an acre or we're going to court, and the communication coming back from Dad and counsel was, "We're not going to pay this because," for a number of reasons at the time. "You took samples without our knowledge. You were trespassing on our land. We didn't use it. We have a receipt of where we had our canola cleaned and treated from Humbolt Flour House."
All of those reasons were provided back to Monsanto, but eventually, there was no opportunity for common ground. So, Monsanto filed their action in court, and the court date was set. And that takes us to, I guess, it was 1998 now. So, it was heard in the federal court in Saskatoon in June of 1998, and following the lower court decision, which ruled in favor of Monsanto, then it went to the appeal court, federal appeal court. And that, I believe, was, I'm going to say, 2001. Then after that, the Supreme Court.
Monsanto's approach was very clear in the court proceedings. They have a patent on this life form. They have a patent on a gene that's inserted into the plant. They have a technology use agreement, and Dad did not sign the technology use agreement, so he has violated their patent. You can look at it on one hand about farmers' rights and responsibilities of manufacturers or seed companies about where does their rights start and where does the farmer's rights begin, but really, what it came down to was an interpretation of Canada's patent law. That was the big issue.
Now, the implications to farmers were growing as the court cases went on or the case proceeded through the courts because, during this time, we were starting to see lots of involuntary canola growing up in the countryside. We're starting to hear stories of organic canola growers who had their canola contaminated by Roundup Ready canola. All these other stories started to pop up afterwards. So that's what became the bigger implications.
And then even further to that, Monsanto was making applications to the Canadian and U.S. governments to patent more seeds. They were looking to patent Roundup Ready wheat as well too and had already started trials on Roundup Ready wheat. So, that was the whole implications about this. But it really, in the court dialogue, it was a lot about patent law, which quite frankly, it was tough to stay awake just because of the sophistication of it, the technicalities of it, the verbiage used in patent law. But that was ultimately what the issue was, Monsanto protecting their patent.Mike Lessiter:
So, this suit got rather ugly, as I understand.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, yeah, it did because as part of the process, Dad was raising money, and there was a number of, what I would call, anti-Monsanto people out there. They just automatically gravitated towards Dad because of this. And then there were our customers. And these are longtime, third-generation customers at the dealership that were very supportive of Dad and saw the issue of, well, hey, I wouldn't want that to happen to me. So, there was a long time period there where people would stop in the dealership and drop off a check to Mom and Dad to help him with his legal fees.
But what also was happening was Monsanto was doing everything possible to destroy Dad's reputation. And that, for the life of me, I just couldn't figure the strategy out here, Mike, because, by this time, we had been in business with the dealership for 60 years. All of us had grown up there. All of our family friends, all of our customers were there. We knew every farmer within a 60-mile radius, either a customer or a potential customer. And our customers started coming into the dealership to say that, "Yeah, a Monsanto rep came to see me and offered me $25,000 in free chemicals to testify against you in court," or "They said this about you."
Perhaps the most bizarre one was when I was on the old North American Equipment Dealers Association when we were going to board meetings. There was a dealer from Ontario who was their dealer representative on the NAEDA board. He told me a story. He asked the Monsanto rep, "What's this deal with Percy out in Western Canada? Tell me about it," not letting on that he knew me and knew me quite well. And this Monsanto rep said, "Well, the whole family is bad, and we know he stole it. We know who he stole it from." And this dealer said to him, he goes, "What do you mean the whole family is bad?" And he said, "Well, one of Percy's son's in jail for selling drugs." And this dealer said, "Oh, I didn't know that."
So, the dealer told me at the time, he didn't say anything to the Monsanto rep, but the next meeting ... Well, no, it wasn't the next meeting. He called me that afternoon and said this is what they said. And he goes, "I wonder, was that true?" And I knew it wasn't me, and I have a brother, and so I knew it wasn't him. So, we laughed about it. But that's the extent of reputation harm that they were trying to do that.
There was so many things that were said outside the courtroom to farmers, our customers, that were never said in the courtroom, were never presented as evidence. It was amazing the lengths that they would go to try and destroy Dad's reputation, and this is portrayed in the movie as well too, private investigators following them around. I remember this happening where I'm living in Calvary, so I'm 450 miles away from my parents' home. I came home. My wife and I came home for a weekend, and we pulled into our driveway. My parents had a rather long driveway from the road, and here's this vehicle sitting in the middle of the driveway. It's just sitting there. And when I pulled up behind it, the vehicle just got out of the way, let me in. Didn't think anything of it. Probably an hour, two hours later when I'm visiting with my parents, I look out the window, and I saw the vehicle still sitting there.
And just out of curiosity, I asked Dad, "Who is that?" And he goes, "Well, we think it's somebody from Monsanto spying on us because when we leave the driveway, they back out. They let us go, but they seem to follow us around town. And then when we come back, they kind of sit there." Then a couple weeks later, then some people in our community of Bruno have actually told Dad that they spoke to them, that they almost were completely transparent about what they were doing. They were using phrases like we were gathering evidence for the trial, and we're speaking to people and everything.
Yeah, that was the unfortunate part about this. In the end, we found part of it comical, found it amusing. But make no mistake, at the time, it was very stressful for my parents. It was stressful.Mike Lessiter:
I saw the interview with your father on the documentary who talked about how the bank, under pressure from Monsanto to take all their investments away, it closed out his trust account at the local bank, how there was threatening phone calls and trying to fracture the local community there, just things that you wouldn't expect to have to deal with in something like this.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, the local fertilizer distributor was pressured by Monsanto to not sell Dad fertilizer, stuff like that. It really divided the community. The community didn't like the attention. A lot of people wanted this whole thing to go away just because of what was going on behind the scenes as the preparation for trial was taking place.
Yeah, there was a good core of supportive farmers, our customers that were very supportive to Dad. And I think we lost track of where it was. It was at least 20 that Monsanto approached that wanted to testify against Dad. The farmers didn't like that pressure because they were being told, "Well, you might not be able to buy chemical if you don't do this. So, in the end, the result of that pressure tactics was there wasn't one farmer that testified against Dad in court. There were farmers that testified in support of Dad, though.Mike Lessiter:
They've made multiple movies about this. The drama is very real, and I'm told it's an accurate portrayal. This must have looked really daunting at times. There were multiple appeals involved. This went to the Supreme Court in Ottawa, correct? Tell me how that felt as the legal bills were stacking up and what your family faced at one point here.John Schmeiser:
So, when the first judgment came down from the lower court, it was like a sucker punch to the stomach. It was just before a single judge, and I think Dad's defense was on the practicality side of this as farming practices. This is what farmers do. Monsanto's approach was, we have a patent, it's a valid patent, he's using our patent. One of the statements that came out of the lower court decision was it didn't matter if it was 100% contamination of Roundup Ready canola or one, two, 3% contamination of Roundup Ready canola. The assumption would be made that all of that belongs to Monsanto because of their patent. That's how strong the patent law is.
So, that's where the gut punch was. It was because we had independent tests on all of Dad's fields that grew canola. We harvested the canola, it was stored in our bins, we kept samples of it, samples of it went for cleaning for seed for the next year. So, we still had samples of our canola from which field it came from, and the highest contamination was 66%. That was on the field that was along the road that went to the canola processing plant. The rest of the fields tested in at like 3% or 5%. How it even became three or 5% is anybody's guess, but by that time, there was lots of volunteer canola growing, so that may have been it.
Anyway, that was a lower court decision. And when they said it didn't matter what the percentage was, it was like, wow, this really seems lopsided towards the seed company as opposed to the farmer. So, appeal was filed, and honestly, Mike, I can't give you the details of the basis of appeal, but there was probably 20 or 25 reasons why thought an appeal should be heard. And when the appeal was heard, it was cleared before three federal judges. The Court of Appeal had three.
I sat in a couple of days of that testimony, and the most obvious thing to me was the lack of knowledge that the judges had about agriculture in general. I didn't think that that was a good thing. Fast forward, the Court of Appeal rules 3-0 against Dad on his appeal, and Monsanto's judgment is upheld. Here's the significance of this. We're not talking about $19,000 anymore. Now, we're talking about costs. So, Monsanto was asking for costs, and already the bill was over a $1,000,000 legal expenses that Monsanto was presenting. So, the $19,000 didn't become the issue. The issue became Monsanto's legal fees, and so that's why Dad was raising money.Mike Lessiter:
I assume they had an army of lawyers on the Monsanto side, right?John Schmeiser:
Yeah, yeah, so at least eight lawyers from Monsanto sitting in the courtroom like three or four at the main table at every step, lower court, Appeals Court, Supreme Court, and counsel from Saint Louis, local counsel from Saskatoon, counsel from Toronto. Their main patent lawyer was from Toronto. Yeah, there's some pretty big legal fees being paid out at the time.
So, after the appeal court ruled 3-0 in favor of Monsanto, there was a big discussion between Dad and Terry as to whether or not they should apply to the Supreme Court. So, it's not automatic that the Supreme Court is going to hear the case. They have to make an application to it. I think Terry pegged it as less than a 50% chance that the Supreme Court would hear it, and Dad was of the opinion of still back to why he decided to fight them in court in the first place.
So, the application was made, and the statement that came back from the Supreme Court was that, "Yes, we are going to hear the case, and here's a timeframe of when it's going to be heard." The only other statement they made to Terry was, "We find that this is an interesting case." And what does that mean? I don't know, but it's something that stuck with me forever.
Then shortly thereafter, the Canadian Supreme Court heard a case on a patent on a Harvard mouse. Apparently, they wanted to patent a gene that was inserted into a mouse, and the Canadian Supreme Court released their decision about two months after on this saying that a patent on a living thing wasn't valid. We think that was tied to the decision to hear Dad's case, yeah, and so then it went to the Supreme Court.Mike Lessiter:
At the end, he's facing a $1,000,000 penalty if this doesn't work, but committed, undaunted, still going to pursue this.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, $1,000,000 plus because it was a $1,000,000 after the Court of Appeal, so it could be even higher after the Supreme Court if the Supreme Court rules against Dad. So, for those who don't know, this is what the Supreme Court ruled. They ruled 9-0 in favor of Dad that he didn't have to pay the $15 an acre. And the reason why, the consensus reason why he didn't have to pay Monsanto is when he sold his canola, he didn't get any more for it. If it was Roundup Ready canola or if it was conventional canola, he got the same price for it, so there was just no distinction by any buyer in Canada that they're going to pay a premium or they're going to pay less depending if it was Roundup Ready or canola.
So, on that, Dad won 9-0. There was two other avenues for appeal, and the second one was, was there infringement? And the third one was, does Monsanto have a valid patent? So, first one on the infringement, they said, "Canada's patent law is very, very clear. Even if you unintentionally have possession of a patent, the patent holder has rights because you've infringed on the patent."
Now, the Supreme Court only ruled 5-4 in favor of Monsanto on that one. And then on the third one, does Monsanto have a valid patent, the answer was yes. So, they said that there was a distinction between the Harvard Mouse case because it was something with a heartbeat and a plant, and so that was the distinction. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Monsanto had a valid patent.
So, when this all shakes out, Mike, Monsanto got what they wanted. The money wasn't the issue. Monsanto got what they wanted. They got a valid patent, and they proved that there was infringement so that they could enforce their patent. But on the most important case to Dad was he didn't have to pay Monsanto anything. The other key thing, the other key piece of evidence in this that really weighed things in Dad's favor in the Supreme Court was if you have Roundup Ready canola, it doesn't automatically guarantee it's going to bushel more. It's not designed for dry conditions or wet conditions or anything like that. The only application with Roundup Ready canola is that you can spray it with Roundup and the plant won't die.
The one thing that Monsanto could not get around and went to great lengths to try and prove is that year in question, Dad never sprayed his canola with Roundup. So, the argument at the Supreme Court was not only did he not receive any more or any less when he sold it, he never took advantage of the one and only application of the Roundup Ready canola seed, and that is you can spray it and it doesn't die. The plant doesn't die. And he didn't spray it. So, because he didn't spray it weighted in his favor, and I think another part of a big reason why the court ruled 9-0 in his favor.Mike Lessiter:
You were with him the day that the judgment, the phone call came in, correct?John Schmeiser:
Yeah, I was also in the Supreme Court as well, and that's why I made it into the movie. The Supreme Court hearing is probably the most surreal [inaudible 00:43:28] that I had. Just being in the Supreme Court for the first time and having a case that involves your family is at another level. And then when I look at all of the stress, the anxiety, the nervousness of what could happen, yeah, and then after the Supreme Court hearing was done, perhaps the largest media scrum that I have ever seen. And I've seen some for Prime Ministers, I've seen some for presidents, but this was crazy. There was media from all over the world there.
Once that was done, my wife and I went to a restaurant, had a meal, and looked at each other, and said, did what we see today really take place? It was just a lot to take in. Then when the judgment was announced, I was there as well. It was Mom and Dad and myself, and we were sitting in Terry Zakreski's law office in Saskatoon. And we were told that the call was going to come at 10:00, and at 10:00 and 10 seconds, the phone rings. And the legal secretary says, "Supreme Court's on the line." Within a minute, Terry just thrust his arm in the air like this in celebration with this big smile on his face, and immediately we thought, "This is good."
Then Terry's reaction changed, and it wasn't as strong and serious, but it was more focused, I guess. And he was listening and listening and listening, and the call went on for another five minutes. So you can imagine we're sitting there, and Terry's initial reaction is yes. Then all of a sudden, it's, "What's going on?" I think on a couple of occasions while Terry was still on the phone with the clerk at the Supreme Court, my mom was saying, "What's going on?" And Terry, "Let me finish."
So, once he got off the call, he hung up the phone and he said, "You're going to like the news, and I'm going to phrase it this way. Percy, you're my client, and it's my duty to act in the best interest of the client and give the best advice to the client. And here we are today where we have the best outcome for you as my client because the Supreme Court's voted 9-0 that you don't have to pay them anything." And that's when we celebrated a little bit. Once we did that, then what were you so concerned about? And he said, "They went over the rationale, an abbreviated rationale of why the majority went 9-0 in Dad's favor, and then they advised him about the 5-4 and the other two issues and the majority opinion on both of those."
So, he summed it up afterward. He goes, "Whether or not Monsanto has a valid patent or not is really not your fight. It has no implications on you. You're not a seed grower. You're a farmer, farm equipment dealer, so that's Monsanto's business. Whether or not there is infringement, yeah, that's part of it, but really there's no penalty to you because you infringed on Monsanto's patent because you have this 9-0 decision." So, that's why I say Monsanto got what they want out of it, and Dad got the most important area of appeal to him.
But immediately, we went to a press conference after that, and before we even walked into the room of the press conference, all the media had been spun by Monsanto's communications people that Percy had lost, and Monsanto had won it. It was amazing. And still to this day, Monsanto's speaking notes are on this that Percy lost, but Monsanto won. They just refuse to acknowledge that it was a split decision.
There's been on a couple of occasions where just a media [inaudible 00:47:45]. I said, "Why don't you go back and look at the Supreme Court decision? That's been cleared up." But we're all past the time period of explaining. If people want to think you lost, who cares? At the end of the day, what was most impactful on our family, that financial penalty was gone. The weight of the world is lifted off my mom's shoulders. Monsanto had put caveats on all of our farmland, so we couldn't borrow against them to finance the court trial, so my mom was of the opinion that there would be locks on her house before she even got home that day if all three went.
And part of the decision of the 9-0 that went in Dad's favor, the court also ruled that each party pays their own costs. So, that was in the decision as well. To Monsanto's credit, before we even left the lawyer's office, they called and said that they had removed all of the caveats that they had on Dad's land. They had removed that fairly quickly, so we'll give them that. Yeah, to this day, it never ceases to amaze me where I'll run into somebody who may have heard about it, and they'll go, "Well, he was." And it's just like sometimes if you're explaining, you're losing, so you just let it slide.Mike Lessiter:
We'll come back to the episode in a moment, but first, I'd like to thank our sponsor, Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul for supporting today's podcast. It's as important as ever to ensure you're getting the most out of your fertilizer. Recent studies from Auburn University and Crop Vitality show when paired with a UAM solution, thiosulfate fertilizers slow down the process that causes you to lose your nitrogen into the atmosphere and groundwater. Visit cropvitality.com to explore the studies on nitrification inhibition. Check out the e-book, Nitrogen and the Thiosulfate Factor, and learn more about Crop Vitality's thiosulfate fertilizers. That's cropvitality.com.
And now, let's get back to the conversation with Mike Lessiter and John Schmeiser.Mike Lessiter:
Well, before we get into some of the lasting significance and impact of this, had it ruled against Percy and Louisa, what would've happened? Would the farm have been lost? Was the dealership in trouble? What would've happened had it gone the other way?John Schmeiser:
Well, we never saw what Monsanto's legal costs were on the Supreme Court. We knew it was a $1,000,000 bill once it got past the Court of Appeal, so our guess was it could have been twice, maybe three times as much. It could have been as high as maybe three, $4,000,000. Yeah, that would've been all the land was at risk. All of our real estate was at risk. The dealership certainly was at risk, absolutely.Mike Lessiter:
I wanted to ask that question because this required enormous courage to do what was done here at that time.John Schmeiser:
Yeah. Well, and there would be time periods when we were together as a family while it was going through the courts, the various level of the court, where this is the last thing that we wanted to talk about. But then there was also some times where there were some pretty frank discussions that were had. Ideally, we wanted it all to go away. We wouldn't wish that it would happen on anybody just because of how consuming it was at times. So, we were all aware that sometimes when you take a principled stand, it can be very costly, and fortunately, it worked out for the betterment.
But the other thing too is my parents, even my mom to this day, just so grateful for all the people that provided financial support. It's crazy. Somebody would see an article in a newspaper in Alabama, and they'd cut the article out, and there'd be a check for $5 sent. And it would just say something, "I can't help with a lot, but here's something to help you," just amazing about that. It was not only North America. It was all over the world where people provided support, financial support, which really helped a lot on the legal cost. But if Monsanto was awarded their cost, there's no way Dad would've been able to raise that money. It would've completely devastated us.Mike Lessiter:
I wanted to talk about the significance of all of this, and it was at a very interesting time for agriculture. We got Roundup Ready technology available in a number of crops. The world is changing very quickly. Percy could have settled this thing on the first phone call for 20 grand and signed an NDA and never been able to speak about it again. Tell us what happens if this doesn't play out in the public setting that it did and created this awareness not only for the wheat debate that followed but for the ability for farmers to stand up and represent their injuries, to fight for themselves. Tell us what life might have looked like had this never happened.John Schmeiser:
They certainly would've pursued payment for their patents a lot more aggressively than what they did afterward. And I think one result of this too is because Dad never sprayed the canola with Roundup, that was an avenue for mediation if Monsanto approached somebody and said, "Hey, we want you to pay," if the farmer could prove that he never sprayed it because it was being mentioned by the Supreme Court. Then you have both of those things that you're going to get the same price for it, but yeah, you didn't spray it. So, in the judgment, and this is going back some time since I looked at it, but it was very clear about the fact that because he didn't spray it, he didn't take advantage of the patent technology that was part of the rationale for it.
I know on a couple of occasions, Dad had been told by people that he had met that they would come to a resolution out of court where they didn't have to pay because they were able to prove that they did not purchase either the technology or the chemical to spray it. So, I think that's one right there. I think they would've been more aggressive. I think the other thing too is, like we mentioned earlier, I think they would've probably got patent approval on wheat. And even the wheat grower groups in Canada were not comfortable with that.
Now, the mindset's changed a little bit now because we've got a couple decades under our belt, but at the time, they were concerned about losing markets overseas if Roundup Ready wheat came into the market. So, I think that was a big impact. And then the other thing is Monsanto's reputation really took a hit on this, and that I think probably had some impact in the purchase by Bayer. There is a Bayer-Monsanto tie into the movie as well too that we can get into a little bit later, but Monsanto, when you sue your customer, and you're very public about suing your customer, and then you stand on a pedestal with a megaphone and boast to everybody about how you won after suing your customer, not every customer responds positively to them.
Then the other behind-the-scenes stuff as well too, from what the investigators were saying to our customers at the dealership, that didn't go over very well either with customers about having to divide farmer versus farmer. Now, this is a community where if a farmer got sick during harvest, everybody else came around and helped them take the crop up. And now, all of a sudden, you've got this division there that was very, very evident. It all circles back to Monsanto's tactics. Their public relations approach was maybe different than what customers were expecting to see from a seed company.Mike Lessiter:
Do you think that there was a lesson learned here, one, that farmers can stand up and fight and actually have a shot at winning, and secondly, maybe the behavior of big agribusiness may have been changed somewhat?John Schmeiser:
I don't know about the latter. I hope, and I certainly see it from the equipment industry perspective, where our manufacturers make a good product, and they're able to make that good product because customers are successful and dealers are successful. They can reinvest in R&D and everything. So, they're really attuned to the customer. I hope every business that works with our farmer customers doesn't take them for granted, and don't take them for granted that the business is always going to be there just because of the product that they make. Yeah, I think there were some lessons learned out of this, and if it makes for a better company that's dealing through our supply chain, I think we all win, quite frankly.Mike Lessiter:
Let's pivot over to the movie for a minute, and before I turn it over to you, a couple observations. One, I think everyone who's listening to this needs to go and rent this movie. It's available on Amazon. Anyone making a living in agriculture, agribusiness, a student needs to see this movie. I've seen it twice and also seen the documentary. It has Christopher Walken, Academy Award winner, as playing Percy Schmeiser. Second observation, and you shared this with me earlier, John, that your wife is pleased with the composite character, Peter Schmeiser, which was played by Luke Kirby, who I understand she got a better-looking husband than she did in real life, as you said it, I think, right?John Schmeiser:
Correct. Yeah, that's okay with [inaudible 00:58:38].Mike Lessiter:
Good. Well, tell us about what it's like to see your family on the big screen and how all that came together.John Schmeiser:
It's very surreal as well too, just like being in the Supreme Court. The first time that I saw it was, I guess it was June 15th of 2020, and the producers had arranged a screening for the media buyers, so Netflix, Amazon, Paramount, Apple TV, Universal Studios. All of them were invited because they were going to sell the rights to it and who was going to take it from that point, the distribution. So, they allowed all family members to watch it.
We're in the middle of COVID at this time, and so it was done online. I watched this movie. I've seen it three times: that premier, the Canadian premiere, and the U.S. premiere. I haven't seen it any other time except for 30 seconds flipping through the channels one night, and there it was on. "Oh, it's on. Next station." Each time of those three times that I've seen it, I'm not watching a movie. So, I view it completely different than any other movie that I watch just because of the closeness to the story, to the issue that we all had. And my siblings feel exactly the same way.
When my mom saw it, she fell asleep during it, which was probably a good thing because it was a little late at night. But that was probably a good thing because she was a little anxious watching it just because of the memories that it would bring back. And that's the same thing for us. It brings back memories of the time period at the time of what was going on at the time, not only with the case but what was going on in their personal lives. Because, as an example, when something happened, yeah, my daughter Rachel was born right about that time, so those things came back.
Then the nitpicking started, and still does start because every movie takes some artistic liberties. In this particular case, every word of the court transcripts is 100% accurate. The writers told us that because they were so worried about being sued that they made everything in the court transcripts exactly word for word. But there were a few liberties that were artistic liberties that didn't hurt the film at all. So, we noticed them. When we watched the film, we noticed them, and I try my best not to ruin it for somebody and let them watch the movie in the entirety.
What I typically say, "Watch the movie, and I'll talk to you about it afterwards." And then if you want to know what was stretched a little bit or what was added, I'll tell you then. A good example is my dad was a farm equipment dealer, and there's no reference to that in the movie at all. When I talked to the writers at one of the premieres, they said, "We have so much content, and it's like, how do you put these storylines in there?" So, sometimes you take the simplest path to tell the story in an hour and 40 minutes.
Yeah, but I'll probably watch it again sometime in the future, Mike, probably. For the time being, yeah, it's just an unbelievable experience. It's a great storyteller. I've won one bet. I wasn't paid for the movie. Mom and Dad were paid for the rights, so a production company bought the rights before the Supreme Court decision was issued. That's how long that this thing was in the works. Maybe I'll touch on that just a little bit.
Yeah, it was about three months before the decision came out where they bought the rights, and they paid Mom and Dad $5,000 a year on a five-year contract as they were going to build the script. After five years, they renewed for another five. Renewed it for another five. Then when they got all the clearance to go to proceed with the movie, then an entertainment lawyer came in and negotiated a fee for Mom and Dad on the production of the movie. So, there's no backend or anything like that. It's just the rights were bought, and the writers sat down with all of us for hours, I think like three or four days with Mom on four or five different times. And then with my wife and myself, sat down with us for almost a whole day putting the script together.
The writers told me they reached out to Monsanto and wanted to get some perspective from them as they were writing the script, and Monsanto basically told them, "If you proceed with this thing, we're going to get a court injunction and shut it down." So, that's why it took so long for this thing to hit the screen.
When Bayer purchased Monsanto, one of the producers reached back, their lawyers reached back to Bayer and said, "Hey, we have this project," and as I understand it, what Bayer said, "We don't care what you do, but you will not use the word Bayer in your movie." So, they were fine with Monsanto being in it, but they would not consent to Bayer being mentioned in it. So, there's no mention of Bayer in it at all because it's Monsanto's story.
So, they started-Mike Lessiter:
This is when Bayer bought them in 2018, I think, right?John Schmeiser:
I think it was, yeah, sometime around that time when they finally got approval, so I think it was, if I remember correctly, it would've been maybe March or April of 2018. And filming started the last week of August in 2018 and also in May. So, once they got the go-ahead, the writers called Mom and Dad, and so they shared the news with us. In May, they said that Liam Neeson had signed on to the role to play my dad.
This is just priceless. I wish you could see it, but my dad had these old grade school notebooks that he always wrote stuff and kept in it. And so I asked him when they said the movie's going to proceed, I said, "Who's going to play you?" And he goes, "Oh, I don't know who it is, but I wrote it down." So, he pulls out this old little book and he goes, "Have you ... " He goes, "Lion, Lion Neesom." And I said, "Would it be Liam Neeson?" He goes, "Yeah, that's it. Yeah, that's it." I immediately went, "Holy crap!" Now, I finally knew what the scope or the scale of this thing was going be because if they signed him, I went, "This is going to be a Hollywood production." Wow, that's quite something.
About two months later, I'm visiting with my parents, and I asked Dad, "Do you have any idea when they're going to start filming?" And he said, "Yes, it's going to be this fall. It's going to be in Winnipeg, but they've got a new actor to play me." And I went, "Oh, do you know his name?" And he goes, "No, I don't remember his name." So, he goes, pulls back this book again, and he wrote it down, and he goes, "Have you ever heard of an actor named Chris Walking? I went, "No, Dad, I haven't. No, I haven't." And immediately I thought, "Okay, so maybe this isn't a Hollywood production again."
At the same time, Dad said that if you want to go watch some of the filming, we'll call the writer and they'll make accommodations for you because Mom and Dad were invited and Dad was invited for a cameo. And he said, "Not my deal or not my style," and turned it down. So, I did call the writer and just get the details to see if I can make it work. And after she told me the details, she said, "Well, you must be pretty excited that Christopher Walken has signed on to play your dad." And I just went, "What? Are you kidding me?"
So, she went through the cast of who was all signed on, Christina Ricci and Michael J. Fox was supposed to play the lawyer. They started filming the last week of August. The first week of August, he broke his arm, and so Zach Braff, who played the lawyer, filled in for him. Then she also told me who was going to play me, and I couldn't picture him immediately after I hung up the phone. I had to admit I did kind of Google him and see, okay, now I know who this guy is. I did kind of do that.
Yeah, and then production finished up in Winnipeg. They were six weeks there, and then they went over to India and filmed there for, I think it was three, four weeks. That was 2019, and then COVID hit, and so it was delayed. I think one of their writers told me they had to cut back some stuff out of the original score that they had, original film that they had just because producers, lawyers were just a little concerned about going over that line. Again, they were worried about litigation.
They could not get insurance for the film until they got Bayer to sign off on it. And so lawyers are saying, "Well, you can't proceed until you get insurance for it." So, they were so cognizant of that. Yeah, June 2020, when it went into media firms, the buyers, released in Canada on October the 9th, and then in the U.S. on, I guess, it was April 30th, and then a Canadian premier and a U.S. Premier that I went to and represented the family.Mike Lessiter:
Great. Yeah, it was interesting to me when I saw the cast of it, Christopher Walken and Christina Ricci. The actress who played your mother, Louisa, I've seen in things before, Zach Braff. It was clear that someone really wanted this movie made and was willing to open up their wallet wide to get good talent to tell the story.John Schmeiser:
Yeah. Well, funny you should say that because are you familiar with Dwight Howard, the NBA player?Mike Lessiter:
He's the money behind the film.Mike Lessiter:
No kidding. I didn't realize that.John Schmeiser:
To me, it was, how does that happen? Honestly, I don't know. I don't know. And I didn't even know about it until a colleague sent me an article about how Dwight Howard was providing the funding for this film and how he was getting into that business as he's winding down his NBA career. I was like, "How does that happen?"Mike Lessiter:
Something about that story of the small farmer taking on big business, there's something there, right?John Schmeiser:
I guess so, yeah. I guess so, yeah. When it was released, we still had theaters that are slow to open. So, in the U.S., I think it opened in 35 cities, 35 of the largest markets. It went in theaters, I think, for two and a half to three weeks. But another bizarre thing on Apple, Apple downloads for drama, it was in the top 10 downloads from May 1st until July 1st. So, that was blowing me away as well too, like who's watching this?Mike Lessiter:
Yeah. I gave you a hard time about what your wife said about the appearance of the actor who portrayed you, but I have to say I've known you, I think, close to 20 years or so now. The actor who played you, I would say, was more sullen, angry, maybe than the John Schmeiser that I know. What did your friends and family think about the portrayal?John Schmeiser:
Oh, they all thought the same thing, and that I was more preppy in the movie as well too. That's fine. All of that is good. That's probably the one thing that I critique the least amount in the whole movie is the actor that portrays me because I don't know. I guess my mind can make that separation from the story. But yeah, he did a great job of creating a little bit of conflict, which added to the dramatic effect of the movie. And that dramatic conflict was ... It was never really there.
Did Dad and I disagree on stuff? Yeah. Did I want this whole thing to go away? Yeah, absolutely. But to this day, still proud, very proud of what he did and how he persevered. The other thing that Dad's lawyer always said is he just couldn't believe that no matter what stage of the court proceedings we were at, my Dad always had a smile on his face. The weight of the world would be on his shoulders about the ramifications of this case, the impact on his family, but he still came to court every day with a smile. That's a pretty special thing, quite frankly, to be able to persevere through it like that.
But yeah-Mike Lessiter:
Did your dad get a chance to see the film before he passed?John Schmeiser:
He didn't. He didn't. So, the Canadian premier was in Calgary, and that was on September 29th. Then they had just a limited release in some cities on October 2nd, and then the Canada-wide release was October 9th. He got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and fell, and went into the hospital, and died on the 13th in the hospital. So, no, he never got to see it.
I don't know. I told him I saw it, though. Two things I remember telling him from that was, if you saw it, you would like it. And secondly, at the end of the movie, at the premiere, I said, "The movie theater was full to capacity for what COVID would allow at the time." And when the movie was done, I said, "There was a big round of applause from those that were in the audience." And he turned to me and said, "Oh, so they liked it then." And I said, "Yeah, Dad, they liked it." Yeah, that's it. He just never got to see it. It was pretty sad, but it's just the way it is.Mike Lessiter:
Well, between the big picture movie and the documentary, it's special to know that this still lives on, and you can watch the documentary and hear his voice whenever you want to now, right?John Schmeiser:
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, like a lot of sons, when their parents, their dad passes away, I think about him every day. There's always something that comes up. Probably the nature of the work with the Dealers Association, but yeah, a number of people have been so kind with comments about saying about this has been a nice legacy for Dad on the fight. And that's very true. It is. It's always there. For our descendants, my siblings, their children, their grandchildren, there's always something that we can show them on screen about my dad, which is a pretty unique thing to have.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, that's cool. By the way, I have a bunch of correspondence from Percy in my possession actually, because I was out at H&R Agri-Power years ago, and Ross Morgan had his entire White Farm equipment binder when he was chairman. For years, his secretary just put it all in there. He lent it to me. It's going to end up in Charles City someday, but I was flipping through there and I'm like, "I'm seeing Percy's name all over this thing." And he said, "Oh, yeah. He was very much involved." And he goes, "You know John." I go, "Yeah, I know John." I didn't have the pleasure of meeting Percy, but this would've been, I don't know, 2018 or 2019 when Ross showed this to me, so I'll have to share that with you sometime.
So, you had two stores.John Schmeiser:
The original location was in Bruno, Saskatchewan, and that one was called Schmeiser's Garage. And then in 1986, we set up a second location in Humboldt, which is 25 miles away, and we called that one Central Farm Sales. Then prior to selling in 2003, we actually closed the original location. It was just more cost-effective to operate in the larger community, with a larger trading area, with a larger building, more staff, all of that.
So, as Dad was getting older and slowly starting to slow down from the dealership and from farming as well too, we made the decision to close the dealership in Bruno, at pretty much right about at the same time as this whole thing started with Monsanto. But really the decision was unrelated.Mike Lessiter:
Would you characterize him as a farmer first or a dealer first? What was his ...John Schmeiser:
Yeah. Yeah, he would characterize himself as a farmer first, definitely. He took great pride in being a farmer, but he also liked the business aspect of it, the farm equipment side of it, and taking care of customers side of that. He really liked it, but in his heart, he would, yeah, always put the farm first.
I guess there's one spoiler that I'll give that I know Dad probably wouldn't have liked in the movie. There's a scene where, in a fit of rage, my dad destroys all of his seed samples that he's collected over the years. When I was a kid, I was often wondering, "What are you doing? Why are you doing this?" I don't know if it was a hobby or a curiosity or probably the real reason was always looking for the best seeds, the best germination rates, and that's what he was going to use the seed for the next year.
But in the movie, there is a scene where, in a fit of rage, he destroys all the samples from the previous year. That never happened. It added to the dramatic effect of the movie without a doubt, but Dad would've never done that. And maybe he would've been a little disappointed to see that. But in the end, that was impactful in the movie, to say the least.Mike Lessiter:
That was one of those things where I'm going, "He didn't do that," during the movie. Instead of watching the movie, I'm going, "Hey, wait! No, wait a minute. I got to think. No, no, he didn't do it.'Mike Lessiter:
I'm glad when you pointed that out to me last year that that didn't really take place because that tore me up when I was watching the movie to see decades of that research being destroyed, the mason jars being thrown on the ground. So, good. I was pleased to hear that wasn't reality.John Schmeiser:
Yeah, yeah. Well, when my mom saw it, that was just before she fell asleep, and she said too, of course, he never did. It was one of those great parent-son moments where you have to remind your mother that this is a movie, Mom.Mike Lessiter:
Right. Related to this, I'm glad you brought that story up because I'm thinking we probably have some listeners and viewers out there who don't understand what seed saving was or the cultural, what your immigrant family brought that over, and then how Percy described the promise of the next season's seed in the movies. Can you give us a layman's definition of seed saving and how important that was to your family?John Schmeiser:
Yeah, so when my great-grand grandfather came from Austria to Minnesota, he brought wheat seeds along with them. Not a lot, but he brought some along with him, and they made its way into Minnesota. And he planted some wheat off of where they were staying, the place that we were staying. He planted some off there just to make some bread, and saved some of the seeds from that, and brought them with them when they came into Saskatchewan.
This is something that was done generation after generation, where you would put aside a small amount of your crop and use it as seed for the next year. It didn't matter what crop it was, whether it was wheat or barley or canola, this was just common practice. And then every so often, at the time, farmers would maybe buy some new seed just because some new varieties were out, some varieties that maybe had drought tolerance or a shorter growing season. So, there's always new seed developments going out there and coming into the marketplace, but, for the most part, what farmers did was they saved some seed and then reused it, saved some of the crop, and then reused the seed as next year.
Well, I think now we're in a time period where that's not as common practice. Part of that is just because of the investments that the seed companies have made in the technology, short-season corn or canola resistant to certain diseases. It seems the seed companies can develop that technology quicker than breeding that typically goes on with the seed savings. So, there's still a lot of seed saving that goes on, but more and more these new technologies are attractive to the growers.
Really what it comes down to, in my opinion anyway, Mike, is the growers should have the flexibility to make the best decisions for their farm. Whether that's saving seed they've seeded from the previous year, or buying new seed and trying a new technology, well, let's make that their decision. What concerned Dad at the time was Monsanto was even promoting the use of terminator seeds. So, you planted the seed and you could not use that as seed because of a gene put into it that it wouldn't be able to reproduce. That concerned Dad because you're taking away a customer's choice, and in his words, and tying you to the seed company, really close to the seed company.
He didn't think that that option was a good option for a customer. They should have as many options and the most flexibility as possible when it comes. Yeah, so seed saving was something that, yeah, goes back quite a few generations in our family because that was a common practice.Mike Lessiter:
That terminator was that it would destroy itself after one season. Was that pretty much what it was?John Schmeiser:
After you seeded it, you'd grow a crop, but you couldn't use the seed from that crop. It would not grow again, it would not germinate. So, they just put a gene in there that it was only going to germinate on the seed that they gave you. The offspring of that seed could not germinate.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, okay.John Schmeiser:
Mike, I'm still amazed after all this time that people are still interested in Dad's story. Right after the movie was released, it was almost daily where I got an inquiry about it. But still, to this day, I don't go past a month where somebody asked me about it or asked me if I'm any relation. Even Ross Morgan, the first time I met Ross, the first thing he said to me, "Are you any relation to Percy?" just what a small world that we're in. But the longevity that this issue has, and to still have people interested in the story to this day has always been rather fascinating for me.Mike Lessiter:
Yeah, that in itself is encouraging to me. I will admit. I do like history. No-Till Farmer, which my dad started in 1972, just had its 50th year, and Forbes and some of these other big outfits have covered the fact that No-Till has turned 60. Our publication was 50, but it was 60 years ago that the first commercial plots went in in Kentucky. And the guy from Forbes said, "This story is really important to know about how agricultural could move from the plow to something like no-till because it reminds us of how change is still possible in a well-entrenched industry like ag, which is very tradition-oriented."
The same thing, I think, is applying here. People are wanting to know this story because they want to know what still is possible, one man, a principled man standing up, fighting for what he believes in, your family, sticking behind him.John Schmeiser:
I guess so. The transition that we've made is we wanted this whole issue to go away. We didn't wish this issue on anybody. To now, I'm curious when somebody asks about it because why are you still interested after all this time? Well, how about that? That makes sense. So, we've made that transformation from an issue that we wouldn't wish on anybody, you wouldn't wish on your enemy to go through what my parents did, to one where a pretty cool thing is going to come out about it. Geez, two years since the movie's come out to still have people talking about it is kind of interesting.Mike Lessiter:
But long after your dad is gone, he's still inspiring people, right?John Schmeiser:
Yeah, yeah.Mike Lessiter:
Well, this has really been fun. I really, really appreciate, John, you making the time out of your busy schedule. I know you got a lot going on with the Dealer Association right now and courts and legislation and everything, but really appreciated this opportunity to sit with you and go back and tell a story that I really think needs to be told and our audience would be interested in.
Going to tell every listener and viewer out there, go watch these two movies. One is the David versus Monsanto documentary that you can hear Percy's own voice. It's about an hour-long, exceptional documentary. Then there was the big screen, Percy versus Goliath, starring Christopher Walken as Percy Schmeiser and Luke Kirby is our own Mr. Schmeiser with us here today. So, encourage anyone in agriculture, farm equipment retail and service, agribusiness to go watch these two.
John, thank you for being with us today. I really appreciate it.John Schmeiser:
Well, thank you, Mike. I enjoyed doing this. I hope those that go see the movie, enjoy it. Certainly, you can say that it was just an unbelievable experience to be part of that, even though I don't know how movies are made or anything like that. It's a very surreal moment. Yeah, if you can find the time, go see the movie, and it'll portray a little bit of the stress and anxiety that my parents went through at a time on a case that had worldwide implications.
To you, Mike, thank you for having me. I appreciated this very much, and thanks for everything that Farm Equipment does in promoting our industry as well.Mackane Vogel:
That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast. Thanks to John Schmeiser, Mike Lessiter, and our sponsor, Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul. A transcript of this episode and our archive of previous podcast episodes are available at no-tillfarmer.com.
If you'll be at the National Strip-Tillage Conference this summer, you may just run into John, whose company is sponsoring our Dealership Mind Summit that same week in the same hotel. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.