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ISLAND FALLS, Maine — Vaughn Sleeper doesn’t expect to ever own Sleeper Farm again, but finds satisfaction in now helping to run it. His wife, Mary, has different feelings.
“I break down,” she said about the farm, which was in the Sleeper family for more than six decades. “I have a hard time. I don’t go there unless I have to.”
Located deep in the woods of Sherman Mills, Sleeper Farm had been a center of family life for decades. The farm grows seed potatoes that are sold to other farms, and under Sleeper family ownership, had a long relationship with the farming cooperative run by Agway dating back to 1964.
In 2002, however, Agway went bankrupt, just as the Sleepers were suing the cooperative over what they claimed were intimidating business practices. Their attorney, Daniel Lilley of Portland, pushed the case for three years and says he secured the Sleepers a six-figure settlement.
This week, a Portland jury said Lilley did not do enough for the Sleepers, and ordered his firm, the Daniel G. Lilley law firm, to pay $1.1 million in damages to them. Lilley has denied any misconduct, and said he was sued by the Sleepers because they wanted more money and their farm was never profitable.
Lilley plans to file an appeal, he said Thursday. The Sleepers’ attorney, Lee Bals of Portland, said state law dictates the appeal must be resolved within a year.
If they triumph in the appeal, the money will allow the couple “to clean up everything that this has caused us,” said Vaughn Sleeper.
“It won’t make us rich,” he said, “but it will put us back on our feet.”
Obsessing over the details
Other farmers said taking legal action against Agway, a supply and seed distribution company that had done business with the farm for decades, was a mistake, according to the Sleepers.
Their case against Agway began, they said, when officials from the company — which distributed Sleeper Farm seed potatoes to seven other Maine farms — pressed them to file a false insurance claim as a money-making tactic.
Relations with Agway until then had been amicable, but when they refused to make the claim, the Sleepers said Agway used intimidation tactics to drive them out of business. The Sleepers sued, accusing the company of monopolizing the seed potato business in The County and profiting handsomely from it.
Vaughn Sleeper said he lost about half of one crop one year because of Agway’s refusal to buy seed potatoes from them for distribution to other farms, which forced him to start selling pieces of the 1,000-acre farm as early as 2001.
“It was a nightmare,” he said. “I just couldn’t do what they wanted me to do.”
Suing Agway put a great deal of professional and personal pressure on the couple. Vaughn Sleeper, 52, became obsessive, huddling for hours on his computer to read about their case and compile thousands of documents.
A delivery driver for a dozen years, Mary Sleeper, 51, said the case made her go from an extrovert well-versed in dealing with the public to someone who doesn’t like to go out.
High school sweethearts who have known each other since they were small children, Vaughn and Mary had too much love between them to let their work problems drive them apart, they said. Their sons, William Sleeper, 33, and 21-year-old Dakota Sleeper, and Vaughn’s parents, Rodney and Faye Sleeper, were huge supporters. They also loved farming, Mary Sleeper said.
“Sometimes he fell down and sometimes I was down,” Mary Sleeper said, “but we have never both been down at the same time.”
After they filed suit, Agway — once one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in the United States — declared bankruptcy in 2002 and went out of business.
The Agway that today is a wholesale product distribution company serving a network of approximately 460 private dealers in 11 Northeastern states — and headquartered in Westfield, Mass., according to its websit e, agway.com — was never part of the lawsuit.
Lilley, who began representing the Sleepers in their federal lawsuit filed in Bangor in 2002, said the bankruptcy destroyed the Sleepers’ claim against Agway.
He released a statement to the media on Thursday, saying the Sleepers’ claims of intimidation tactics against Agway was also “more fiction than fact.”
In his statement, Lilley questioned whether the Sleepers were cut out to run a business. He said the Sleepers’ attempt to run a tavern in Aroostook County failed after three years, and that in 2000, Vaughn Sleeper stated under oath he would rather “jump in a barrel of piranhas than farm potatoes in Aroostook County.”
Sleeper doesn’t deny making the statement, but said it didn’t reflect any lack of love for farming, just his frustration at the difficulties with running the farm and battling Agway.
Lilley also maintains he secured about $128,000 for the Sleepers, waived their fee, and that the Sleepers were not forced but chose to leave farming.
The lawyer also said the Sleepers had more than $800,000 in equity in their farm and were current on their mortgage when he finished their case in 2005.
Sleeper said the farm was losing money by 2005 and possibly he had $800,000 in equity in the farm when he started liquidating its assets in 2001 to pay the bills. He was renting portions of it to other farmers to make ends meet since 2003 in response to Agway’s interference, which began in 2001, he said.
“The Sleepers first blamed Agway, then the Administrative Judge, then Lilley (the firm) for their misfortunes,” Lilley said in his statement. “They must be held accountable for their own decisions.”
Planning to be normal again
Vaughn Sleeper sold the last of his farm, 300 acres, for $350,000 in 2009. He says he much more enjoys working a farm than owning one.
“I think about what could have been and how it turned out,” Sleeper said on Friday. “But if there was another way that I had to have it, I would have it this way. I can still enjoy working there. They’re just not my potatoes.”
Dan Corey, who now owns Sleeper Farm, said he bought the farm partly because he knew how hard Vaughn Sleeper had worked it.
“Anybody who loses a family farm suffers. How would that tear you up? And they didn’t lose it because of a lack of Vaughn’s work ethic. His work ethic is 100 percent,” Corey said Thursday. “He has been a very loyal, honest employee and I made it a point to buy his farm. It is an excellent farm … It was in the family for generations and it had a very good reputation.”
Vaughn Sleeper’s loss of the farm, Corey said, “came from circumstances beyond his control.”
“I can’t speak highly enough of the man,” Corey added.
Winning the judgment against Lilley has made the Sleepers feel vindicated, but in many ways, the victory hasn’t sunk in yet, they said.
Attorney fees will consume 40 percent of their award, and taxes will also eat into the $1.1 million, Vaughn Sleeper said. He and his wife live in a one-floor, three-bedroom log cabin on Pleasant Lake and plan to continue as they are, with both of them working for Corey on his farm.
“My plans now are to be normal,” Vaughn Sleeper said, “to just live a simple life.”