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.
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.
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.
On 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”