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 began.
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 company.
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 company.
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 out.
"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 success.
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.
Copyright 2013 WAFF. All rights reserved.
1720 Valley View Drive