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WAFF Investigates: Cypress Creek follow-up

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

WAFF began looking into Cypress Creek OrganicFarms four weeks ago. The Better Business Bureau, the USDA, and the attorneygeneral all received complaints about the company after our investigationbegan.

After our stories aired, the company alsopulled ads claiming farmers could make $25,000 just by growing organic tomatoesfor Cypress Creek. In the past week, most if not all of the employees left thecompany.

We have been told by the company's CEO, JamesLawhorne that he plans to step down because of what we uncovered about hiscriminal past. However, ownership of the company remains in his hands.

The earnings claim of farmers making $25,000to $40,000 a year just by growing organic tomatoes is what made WAFF and theBBB take a closer look at Cypress Creek Organic Farms.

"The business plan and the earnings claimswrapped around the fact that you are going to make this money because you cansell them for three times as much being certified organic. What we are findingis that a lot of this was not true. The demand wasn't there, nor could theyguarantee that you could be certified organic," said Michele Mason of the BBB.

The promotions, and even down to the companycontract, say you can grow and get trained to be a certified organic farmerwith the company. However, our investigation uncovered a long list ofinconsistencies of what people were told during the sales pitch of CypressCreek Organic Farms, and what they've actually been able to accomplish with thecompany.

In an attempt to remove the "F" rating by theBBB, the company did provide some information. The company's marketing directorat the time said they were purchasing seedlings from a business called SelectedPlants in Hamilton.

There's even a link on their website to getyou to Cypress Creek if you're interested. In the contract we obtained, it saysyou will be delivered organic seedlings. But after checking, we discoveredSelected Plants is not a certified organic supplier.

"The problem is the company offering this,themselves, were not certified organic," said Mason.

Another reason the company had to pull theUSDA's Organic Seal off their website.

When it comes to who was demanding tomatoes,Cypress Creek's website listed more than 20 restaurants and grocery storeswhere you could eat their tomatoes.

We checked, and some weren't even buyingthem. They have also been pulled from the website.

The BBB's Michele Mason is also receivingcomplaints about the promise of grant money.

"There is no reference in the contract aboutthem securing grants for you, even though we were told verbally people thoughtthat they could get a grant that would offset the investment," said Mason. "Anumber of things people indicated that they were told at the point of sale thatthey aren't seeing in the contract and that they aren't realizing either."

The Lawhorne family once claimed they hadbeen in the farming business since the ‘60s with a farm on top of KeelMountain. We couldn't find any tomatoes or a farm.

The business license for Cypress Creek wasissued in April, and since, around 250 people bought into the concept that 300tomato plants would turn into some serious green.

When we crunched the numbers using CypressCreek's figures, on average, two crops a year could yield 25 pounds oftomatoes. Times 300 plants, would give you 7,500 pounds. Cypress Creek saidorganic tomatoes can be sold at $2.50, and they promise affiliate farmers ontheir website 85% of the royalties, which would come to close to $16,000.

That's if every farmer has success growing.

The company said they are selling greenhousesso farmers can grow year-round, but they are really high tunnel houses. "Theywere never intended to be used for year-round production," said Dr. Joe Kembleof Auburn University.

Cypress Creek modified high tunnels byinstalling fans and heaters. Dr. Kemble, an extension vegetable specialist andprofessor at Auburn, said growers may eventually run into problems. "If you aretrying to grow tomatoes in a high tunnel in winter time, you are using a reallyinefficient system. No matter what you do, the ground is going to be cold."

Kemble said the cold temperatures would slowthe plants' production, and they wouldn't ripen properly.

Company leaders have not addressed any ofthese issues. In fact, since Monday, calls to the company go straight tovoicemail. Frustrated farmers got the same response this week and came to theoffice for answers. Some told us their greenhouses were still missing parts. Somestill don't even have a greenhouse.

"I don't know how to run a company," said onefarmer, "but I think I can do better than this."

The woman, who did not want to be identified,invested in the company back in July. She has a greenhouse, but she is missinga heater and still doesn't have tomato seeds to plant.

"He says just bear with us, we are going tostill grow tomatoes. I'll buy all your tomatoes. I found out he's never orderedthe furnaces at all," she said.

Just a few days ago, Bradley Wilson handledall marketing for the company. Monday, he and several other employees walkedout.

"Jamie had a quick meeting with all theemployees to see if any of the employees would give him any support. Theemployees stated that they didn't want to be a part of the company anymore. Atthat point, Jamie left," said Wilson.

He did not return, but his son Brandon did,locking the doors.

In all of what we uncovered, it begs thequestion if Cypress Creek Organic Farms really set their growers up forsuccess.

We had hoped to sit down with CEO JamesLawhorne to get answers to some of our questions. He put off our request for aninterview, but we will keep trying.

Lawhorne did tell us Cypress Creek OrganicFarms is in the process of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the companyonly has a little more than a half million dollars in assets.

Copyright 2013 WAFF. All rights reserved.

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