Paul Wenger: We Must Take Advantage of Signal to D.C.

California Farm Bureau Federation says Republican President, House and Senate are good news for California Ag

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

At the recent 98th Annual Meeting of the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) there was definitely a positive buzz in the air regarding the recent election.

Walnut and almond grower and CFBF President Paul Wenger said agriculture should take quick advantage of what is an unexpected trifecta.

president of the California Farm Bureau Federation
Paul Wenger

“During the Bush administration, the Republicans controlled the house and the Senate and also the White House, and we didn’t quite get done the things that we want to get done, but I think there was a signal sent in this last election,” Wenger said.  “It surprised everybody. It surprised the Republicans, the Democrats, the Independents – everybody. The establishment. The non-establishment.”

Wenger said the industry has an opportunity to work with the incoming Trump Administration to actually get some things done. “I think the voters sent a very clear signal. We don’t want business as usual. We want to see things get done. People need jobs. People need to be able to not be held down by all this regulatory morasses out there, and so I think in the first 100 days and definitely within the first 14 months, it will make or break this administration,” Wenger said.

“We need to work together. We need to get moderate Democrats with the Republicans. We cannot allow … divisions within the Republican party. We’re lucky to have California Congressman and House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy in a very influential position,” Wenger said. “We have a great list of congressmen around the state – not only in the Republican but the Democrat side – to work together. So let’s solve some problems.”

Wenger noted that agriculture needs relief from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think one of the things that the Trump Administration wants to do through the Interior and the EPA is to get some relaxation or some equity in the Endangered Species Act,” Wenger said.

“The Endangered Species Act was put in under a Republican administration, but nobody thought it would be carried out to the extreme that it is. It’s a very immovable object. Let’s get some flexibility in this that gives mankind the same equal footing that we have for other species because we’re dependent upon that water,” Wenger said.  “We can have a healthy environment and a healthy economy and produce food, but so far, those doors have been slammed shut, and it’s only one way, and that’s the species way.”

The Trans Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement is another issue. “We’re going to have to work with the Trump Administration. He came out during the campaign, said he was against it. He said he was against NAFTA. We need these trade agreements,” Wenger said. “He said he was going to put up a wall, but the other day he said in that wall there’s going to be doors, so if we can work with this Trump Administration and make sure that we have an available legal workforce, that’s great, but Waters of the US (WOTUS) is dead in the first few days of his administration,” Wenger said. “This will be good for all farmers and ranchers across the country.”

WOTUS is a rule that was a 2015 ruling by EPA as part of the Clean Water Act, which says that the EPA as expanded agency over bodies of water and even low areas of ag land where water can settle. It has been met with lawsuits form many states, and major pushback by agriculture.

Wenger said that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) may also get another look.  “We think there’s a good potential that they’ll take another look at and make it more practical rather than this onerous rule that everybody’s trying to figure out,” Wenger said.  “Also, we think the estate tax is something that he’ll take a look at.”

“We’re excited to work with a new administration, see what we can forge in the first 100 days for sure, and at least in the first 14 months so that not only do we have a trifecta for the first two years of his administration, but the last two years too,” Wenger said.

 

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Duarte Nursery Loses Battle Against Army Corps Of Engineers

Ruling in Favor of Army Corps is Game Changer for Agriculture

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director and Laurie Greene, Editor

 

Startling California family farmer, John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery, Inc., his attorneys, and others who have also kept a close watch on the case, Duarte was dealt a serious blow recently in the biggest fight of his life—the right to farm his own property. This legal outcome may portend a game changer for American agriculture as a whole.

 

Background

Duarte Nursery and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) have been engaged in a long legal dispute over private property rights since the family purchased a 450-acre agricultural property in Tehama County in 2012 and planted wheat that fall.

As reported in, “Duarte Farmland Under Siege,” (California Ag Today, March 11, 2016), John Duarte recalled, “The property is in some slightly rolling grasslands, and has some minor wetlands on it, vernal pools, vernal swales. Like most grasslands, wheat areas and wheat plantings, we had a local contractor go out and plow the field for us, 4-7 inches deep, and we flew on some wheat seed for a winter wheat crop in 2012.”

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers accused the farm of “deep ripping” the property (three feet deep), “which we were not,” Duarte said. Legal action ensued with the Army Corps issuing a cease and desist notice in early 2013, according to Duarte, without evidence or basis for their accusation. Duarte Nursery attorneys, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested evidence of deep ripping, the assumption that apparently warranted a cease and desist notice.

Without responding, according to Duarte, the Army Corps sustained the cease-and-desist notice without a hearing and without evidence. “They obstructed our farming operations indefinitely,” Duarte said in March 2016.

 

Current Scenario

Duarte’s attorneys are now scrambling to prepare and file appeals to Eastern District Federal Court Judge Kimberly Muller’s June 10 ruling that by plowing his land to grow wheat, Duarte could pollute vernal pools on his land, violating the Clean Water Act.

Pacific Legal FoundationOn behalf of Duarte Nursery, Pacific Legal Foundation attorneys have moved for reconsideration or certification for immediate appeal on several Clean Water Act issues. “We expect a decision from the court any day on this motion, which will determine whether Duarte Nursery can immediately address the trial court’s legal errors in the appellate court, or will have to go through a trial first on whether the government is entitled to a penalty.” (Source: “Duarte Nursery seeks immediate appeals in Clean Water Act case,” Tony Francois, Pacific Legal Foundation, June 30, 2016)

 

Reaction to the Ruling

California Farm Bureau Federation and Pacific Legal Foundation attorneys had great confidence that Duarte would be vindicated in the action brought by the Army Corps several years ago. “They are just astounded,” Duarte said. “I thought we might have to go to trial on some of our issues, but I did not think we would lose our issues and have the judge rule against us on the other side,” he said.

Duarte clarified, “We are talking about farming activity that only occurred on rolling land—land with dismal vernal pools and flails.” Duarte noted there is no controversy as to whether this tillage was four to six inches deep. “Both sides agreed this is four to six inch deep tillage. Both sides agree that this property had farmed wheat before,” he said.

 

Legal Implications

“The Army Corps’ position is they don’t know how long is too long, but at some point if you haven’t farmed wheat, you lose your ability to continue farming wheat,” Duarte continued. “As it is a rangeland, you cannot plow your ground without a permit from the Army Corps, which they’re not going to grant because there are wetlands,” he said.

John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery.
John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery.

“All of the Food Security Act protections for farming—our ability to idle ground and then bring it back into production—to ensure available food production resources—are gone,” Duarte said. “This is a very extreme ruling. It’s extreme of the law in a lot of different ways. It’s a game changer for agriculture. We’re meeting with Paul Wenger, the president of the California Farm Bureau and seeing what they want to do. I think it’s on a lot of folks’ radar,” said Duarte.

“According to the Clean Water Rule definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS), everything is a wetland and farmers are not exempt,” Duarte stated. “Any tillage that the Army Corps, by their own standards, does not deem to be an ongoing agricultural operation, farmers have liability. Their settlement discussions were in the $5 million to $6 million range, and we’re talking about shallow tillage through vernal pools that covered maybe fourteen or sixteen acres over this property. We can show that those vernal pools are completely intact,” noted Duarte.

Duarte noted that consultants have been at the land to inspect the vernal pool wetlands that concern the Army Corps of Engineers, and have confirmed that all the biology has been restored. “It’s all wetland plants across the vernal pools. They’re not topographically damaged,” said Duarte. “We didn’t re-contour them, we didn’t till them, we didn’t grade them, we didn’t deep rip them such that the restrictive layers of soil no longer perched water—none of that,” he emphasized.

 

A Game Changer for Ag

“Every property owner should be concerned,” Duarte warned. “Basically, what they’re saying is if wheat is profitable for a window of time because of whatever market or geopolitical reasons, you can farm wheat. If you stop farming wheat for a decade because it’s not profitable, or because you have a lease with a cattleman who’s paying you decent money, or you just don’t have the capital to plant wheat, or you just don’t want to plant wheat, then you will lose the right to farm it in the future. You cannot adjust your farming enterprises to the markets or to your business plans or you will lose your right to farm.”

Clean Water Rule, EPA
Clean Water Rule, EPA

Duarte believes that the ultimate goal of the Army Corps of Engineers is to be able to tell you what you can and can’t do with your land on any given day. “They want simple control over how you use your property and discretion over what property is put into permanent habitat and what property remains rangeland. They do not believe that private landowners have any inherent right to farm their property to meet market demands.”

As for the ruling, Duarte said he plans to appeal it. “This ruling is in many ways right in the face of several completions that have come down in court last week,” he said. “A lot of this ruling hinges on the opinion in Rapanos v. United States, where senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Anthony Kennedy said wetlands either have to be navigable waters of the United States or tributaries or related.

As summarized in, “The Practical Application of the Significant Nexus Test: The Final Waters of the US Rule,” (by Lowell M. Rothschild, National Law Review, June 8, 2015):

The significant nexus test requires a determination of whether the water in question – alone or in aggregation with other similarly situated waters in the region – significantly affects the chemical, physical or biological integrity of a traditionally navigable or interstate water or the territorial sea (with “significant” meaning “more than speculative or insubstantial.”). The “region” is the watershed that drains to the nearest traditionally navigable or interstate water or the territorial sea, and waters are “similarly situated” when they function alike and are sufficiently close to function together in affecting downstream waters.
supreme court building

“That was one judge, who had none of the other eight judges agreeing with him,” said Duarte. Nevertheless, Duarte said Justice Kennedy was not correct. “We had four judges that said navigable is navigable. If the Clean Water Act says it exempts, it defines what jurisdictional waters are navigable waters in the United States, and then it defines what jurisdictional waters are. If you look in the Clean Water Act, it says that plowing shall never result in a discharge into waters of the United States,”  said Duarte.

“The language in the exclusion of the Clean Water Act is very clear. What this case tells us is that no regulatory legislation can be created with language that is durable to give private parties any protection with the government,” Duarte explained. “There’s no language clear enough that over time will be undermined by agency rule making and judges that give American public any protection against the government.”

“I don’t know how we will solve problems legislatively in the future,” he remarked. “I don’t know that any responsible Congress can pass a law that restricts activity, no matter what the protections,” Duarte said, clearly frustrated. “The Clean Water Act’s protections are incredibly clear. It is not badly worded. The protections are in there. The protections are careful; they’re clearly articulated; they’re very strong, and they’re completely obliterated,” he said.

Duarte is disappointed and has a long way to go in the appeals process. “All I can say is: Warning to all farmers across the land—this is what can happen. We’re just not strong enough, nor is it right for us to carry this entire thing; my family has already spent $1.5 million defending this case, and it’s likely to go to $2 million. We are going to be looking for help.”

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Duarte Farmland Under Siege

Duarte Farmland Under Seige By Army Corps of Engineers

By Brian German, Associate Editor

The Duarte family has been in a lengthy court battle with the federal government regarding the right to farm their own property.

John Duarte, a fourth generation California farmer and president of the family-owned nursery in Hughson, commented on how this dispute began, “My family owns a piece of property up in Tehama County that we purchased in 2012 and planted wheat that fall. The property is in some slightly rolling grasslands, and has some minor wetlands on it, vernal pools, vernal swales. Like most grasslands, wheat areas and wheat plantings, we had a local contractor go out and plow the field for us, 4-7 inches deep, and we flew on some wheat seed for a winter wheat crop in 2012.

“The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers called us and told us we were deep-ripping the property. I think they were under the misunderstanding that we were getting ready to plant orchards or vineyards there. They looked at it and assumed we were deep-ripping, three feet deep, which we were not,” Duarte said.

“They sent us a cease and desist notice in early 2013, then refused to tell us what their evidence was or how they had drawn their conclusion that we were deep-ripping. We sent two letters from an attorney, under the Freedom of Information Act, requesting evidence we had deep-ripped, the assumption that apparently warranting a cease and desist notice.”

“They refused to answer the first letter. They kicked the matter up to enforcement and then sustained the cease-and-desist notice without ever giving us a hearing and without ever giving us specific cause for their action. They obstructed our farming operations indefinitely,” Duarte noted.

As their request for the evidePacific Legal Foundationnce against them continued to be ignored, Duarte said, “We went to the Pacific Legal Foundation, where they filed a due process suit against the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of a farmer’s right to farm their ground. The Army Corps of Engineers now claims that our 4-7 inch tillage through ground that has been tilled 18-24 inches in the past destroyed wetlands.”

“They are making extremely spurious claims that the small plowing furrows through some of the minor vernal pools are now mini mountain ranges and the valleys of those furrows are still wetlands. But the top of the furrow, maybe five inches higher than the bottom of the valley, is now a converted upland and therefore we have destroyed wetlands across the property and are subject to a destruction of wetlands lawsuit filed by the Army Corps of Engineers against Duarte Nursery.”

Nevertheless, Duarte doesn’t think this was strictly in the interest of habitat preservation, “We believe this lawsuit is completely vindictive and retaliatory because we are challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ ability to simply drive by farms and send cease and desist notices to farmers for very little cause, and then refuse to give any information as to what their cause for the cease-and-desist notice was.”

Duarte believes the lawsuit filed by the Army Corp of Engineers is a somewhat arbitrary enforcement of wetland destruction laws, “Lately, under the new WOTUS Rule, federal administrations [designate that] everything we farm as a wetland. We’ve had experts on both sides out in the field. Everyone agrees that wetlands are still there; the wetlands are still the same size; the wetlands have the same hydrology; the wetlands still have the same pocket water when it rains; the wetlands still have wetland vegetation; the wetlands are all still there by all the parameters one would measure a wetland’s presence by.”

Duarte noted where they are in the process, and why they chose to standup for their rights, “We filed motions for summary judgement, had a motion for summary judgement hearing back in, I think it was early December, we are waiting for the judges rulings on those, so we can proceed to trial on any unsettled matters in the case. We see these types of things happening to our customers all over the state, and that is one reason we wanted to bring this suit. We’re willing to bring this suit and defend our customers, our growers’ ability to take our products and farm their land. Duarte Nursery cannot exist without our growers being able to farm.”

This situation has come at a heavy price for the Duarte family. “This has cost our company over $1 million just to stand up for everyone’s right to farm their property. In a number of important ways, there is a noose tightening around the neck of agriculture everyday, and unless we stand up and fight back, in the courts, where it is appropriate, we are going to lose our ability to farm without federal government permission to do so,” Duarte said.

________________________________

Links:

Duarte Nursery

Pacific Legal Foundation

U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

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