DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)--More than 21,000 Iowa farmers got a financial boost just before the holidays in the form of a StarLink settlement payment, compensation for a slump in corn prices that resulted after unapproved biotech corn mistakenly made its way into the food supply.

Trading partners balked at buying U.S. corn after StarLink, which hadn't been approved for human consumption, was found in taco shells and corn chips in the summer of 2000. Farmers who had nothing to do with StarLink found their prices lower than expected.

"We were never really able to determine how much the impact was globally on the corn market," said Neil Harl, an agricultural economist and professor emeritus at Iowa State University. "So this is a partial, I would say, partial compensation for what appears to be a loss because of the negative impact of that news."

Corn farmers had sued the companies that made and distributed StarLink, seeking compensation for their losses. Lawyers negotiating the $110 million settlement with StarLink Logistics Inc. and Garst Seed Co. tallied 21,344 eligible claimants in Iowa.

These Iowa farmers received more than $18 million in compensation for nearly 6.3 million acres of corn harvested in 2000.

"Iowa was the largest state in terms of claimants, acreage and moneys awarded," said Adam Levitt, of Chicago, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs.

The settlement payments were sent out in the form of prepaid debit cards, which were mailed beginning in late October and early November. In addition, Levitt said, farmers were told that if they used the cards at Tractor Supply Co., they would get a 10 percent discount.

"We negotiated that with Tractor Supply as an additional benefit to the class members," Levitt said. "It's the first time where a class-action settlement resulted in a cash-plus settlement."

Farmers were using their debit cards at Tractor Supply in Marshalltown, along U.S. Highway 30 in central Iowa, just before Christmas. Lana Jackson, store manager, said she saw farmers come in with debit cards ranging in value from $400 to $5,000.

"Lots of times they were buying a lot of tools, general farm maintenance stuff," Jackson said. "They don't think about it until they absolutely have to have it."

She said the size of the settlement helped farmers buy some needed big ticket items, such "air compressors, welders--I think we had a generator go--chainsaws, a lot of fencing, too.

"Just in the last week, we've had a couple of people buy Christmas presents. A lot buy Carhartt jackets for their family," Jackson said.

She said farm toys, including Ertl models of John Deere tractors, also were popular.

"We've seen a lot of people in here that we haven't seen in a long time," Jackson said.

Harl said the StarLink scare caused great concern among corn producers in 2000, though any residual effect would be difficult to gauge.

"There still are areas of the world that are reluctant to use corn, but most of the vendors of our corn have worked out alternative sources or have come to the believe that the incidence of StarLink contamination is very, very small," he said.

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