WAFF began looking into Cypress Creek Organic
Farms four weeks ago. The Better Business Bureau, the USDA, and the attorney
general all received complaints about the company after our investigation
After our stories aired, the company also
pulled ads claiming farmers could make $25,000 just by growing organic tomatoes
for Cypress Creek. In the past week, most if not all of the employees left the
We have been told by the company's CEO, James
Lawhorne that he plans to step down because of what we uncovered about his
criminal past. However, ownership of the company remains in his hands.
The earnings claim of farmers making $25,000
to $40,000 a year just by growing organic tomatoes is what made WAFF and the
BBB take a closer look at Cypress Creek Organic Farms.
"The business plan and the earnings claims
wrapped around the fact that you are going to make this money because you can
sell them for three times as much being certified organic. What we are finding
is that a lot of this was not true. The demand wasn't there, nor could they
guarantee that you could be certified organic," said Michele Mason of the BBB.
The promotions, and even down to the company
contract, say you can grow and get trained to be a certified organic farmer
with the company. However, our investigation uncovered a long list of
inconsistencies of what people were told during the sales pitch of Cypress
Creek Organic Farms, and what they've actually been able to accomplish with the
In an attempt to remove the "F" rating by the
BBB, the company did provide some information. The company's marketing director
at the time said they were purchasing seedlings from a business called Selected
Plants in Hamilton.
There's even a link on their website to get
you to Cypress Creek if you're interested. In the contract we obtained, it says
you will be delivered organic seedlings. But after checking, we discovered
Selected 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 the
USDA'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 stores
where you could eat their tomatoes.
We checked, and some weren't even buying
them. They have also been pulled from the website.
The BBB's Michele Mason is also receiving
complaints about the promise of grant money.
"There is no reference in the contract about
them securing grants for you, even though we were told verbally people thought
that they could get a grant that would offset the investment," said Mason. "A
number of things people indicated that they were told at the point of sale that
they aren't seeing in the contract and that they aren't realizing either."
The Lawhorne family once claimed they had
been in the farming business since the ‘60s with a farm on top of Keel
Mountain. We couldn't find any tomatoes or a farm.
The business license for Cypress Creek was
issued in April, and since, around 250 people bought into the concept that 300
tomato plants would turn into some serious green.
When we crunched the numbers using Cypress
Creek's figures, on average, two crops a year could yield 25 pounds of
tomatoes. Times 300 plants, would give you 7,500 pounds. Cypress Creek said
organic tomatoes can be sold at $2.50, and they promise affiliate farmers on
their 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 greenhouses
so farmers can grow year-round, but they are really high tunnel houses. "They
were never intended to be used for year-round production," said Dr. Joe Kemble
of Auburn University.
Cypress Creek modified high tunnels by
installing fans and heaters. Dr. Kemble, an extension vegetable specialist and
professor at Auburn, said growers may eventually run into problems. "If you are
trying to grow tomatoes in a high tunnel in winter time, you are using a really
inefficient system. No matter what you do, the ground is going to be cold."
Kemble said the cold temperatures would slow
the plants' production, and they wouldn't ripen properly.
Company leaders have not addressed any of
these issues. In fact, since Monday, calls to the company go straight to
voicemail. Frustrated farmers got the same response this week and came to the
office for answers. Some told us their greenhouses were still missing parts. Some
still don't even have a greenhouse.
"I don't know how to run a company," said one
farmer, "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 missing
a heater and still doesn't have tomato seeds to plant.
"He says just bear with us, we are going to
still grow tomatoes. I'll buy all your tomatoes. I found out he's never ordered
the furnaces at all," she said.
Just a few days ago, Bradley Wilson handled
all marketing for the company. Monday, he and several other employees walked
"Jamie had a quick meeting with all the
employees to see if any of the employees would give him any support. The
employees stated that they didn't want to be a part of the company anymore. At
that 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 the
question if Cypress Creek Organic Farms really set their growers up for
We had hoped to sit down with CEO James
Lawhorne to get answers to some of our questions. He put off our request for an
interview, but we will keep trying.
Lawhorne did tell us Cypress Creek Organic
Farms is in the process of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the company
only has a little more than a half million dollars in assets.
Monday, September 1 2014 2:00 AM EDT2014-09-01 06:00:48 GMT
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