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Farmer Sued for Working His Own Land

The nearly $3M in federal fines stem from a difference of 3".

Growing up in a small community of large dairy farms, I quickly grew to appreciate the amount of risk involved with farming. While so many factors are beyond their control, like the weather and milk prices, at least farmers could always control one thing – what they planted on their own land.

I can only imagine what my grandfather and uncle would say about the $2.8 million risk that John Duarte apparently took about five years ago.

Duarte is a fourth-generation California farmer and owner of Duarte Nursery, one of the largest grapevine and nut tree suppliers on the West Coast. It employs 500 people and boasts annual revenues approaching $50 million.

Duarte bought more than 400 acres of land in 2012, with long-term plans of converting it into a walnut orchard. The first step was laying down some winter wheat.

Because the property has numerous wetlands, Duarte hired a consulting firm to map out areas that were not to be plowed because they were part of the drainage for local creeks, and therefore classified as waters of the United States.

Due to the amount of clay in the soil, rainwater pools and evaporates in these fields, it doesn’t really drain. So when plowing a field, the depth of the plow blade is important. Duarte insists he never went more than 7” into the earth in order to preserve these pools and the endangered species that rely on them.

The Army Corps. of Engineers disagreed and issued a $2.8 million fine, stating that Duarte had violated the Clean Water Act by not obtaining a permit for working his own land. Duarte points to an EPA provision that allows for unregulated plowing as long as a wetland doesn’t run dry.

However, according to the Army, Duarte’s plowing was destroying wetlands by digging closer to 10” into the dirt. Duarte wasn’t allowed to harvest his wheat and the land has remained unworked, but still taxed, since the legal battle began.

Duarte’s lawyer feels the case is important because it could set a precedent on how the government requires farmers to obtain costly, time-consuming permits to basically work their own land.

$3 million over a 3” difference – Duarte heads to court in August for his final roll of the dice.


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