In a show of support, the Butte County Farm Bureau visited John Duarte’s Paskenta Road property south of Red Bluff Friday morning, issuing a challenge for other farm bureau organizations to join it in supporting the legal battle involving the property that returns to court Tuesday in Sacramento.
Duarte’s case was lost and the penalty phase, which seeks $2.8 million in fines and millions more in payments for wetland mitigation, is set to begin Tuesday in front of U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller in Sacramento, according to a press release issued Thursday by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Duarte and his family business, Duarte Nursery.
The cost of mitigation, at roughly $250,000 per acre, is about $25-30 million, which is staggering, said Duarte’s lawyer Tony Francois, senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, during a visit to the property in May.
The lawsuit revolves around property on Paskenta Road near Flores Avenue and began with a 2012 visit by an Army Corps of Engineer Representative. Duarte Nursery Inc., headquartered outside of Modesto and founded by Jim and Anita Duarte and their sons John and Jeff, was in the process of planting wheat at the time. A cease and desist notice alleging violation of the Clean Water Act was issued.
Butte County Farm Bureau President Clark Becker started off Friday’s conference, giving background on the lawsuit and calling it precedent-setting.
“It’s a direct overstep of the regulation process to gain control, levy fines and make money,” Becker said.
It’s something that will impact not only the jobs of Duarte Nursery, which employs more than 500 people, but the livelihood of all farmers and the future generations, Becker said. Plowing is normal farming and is exempt from the clean water act, which is why this case is so alarming, Becker said.
“This is our opportunity to stand together for our industry,” Becker said. “Now more than ever, we need to come together. If we are no longer allowed to plow, what will the future of farming look like? This isn’t a future generation problem. This is ours.”
The bureau, which has donated $10,650 to Duarte’s defense, challenged both state and county farm bureaus across the nation to support the legal battle by giving $10 per member. The organization has 1,065 members as of last fiscal year, said Executive Director Colleen Cecil.
“This is an absolute travesty,” Duarte said, adding that over the years the family has heard countless stories similar to theirs, which he described as a shake down. “This is the time to stand up and fight.”
Duarte said he hoped, since the Trump administration seemed to want to help farmers, there would be some relief, but has been disappointed so far that the issue has not yet been resolved.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen spoke as both a farmer and friend of the Duarte family.
“This is a case about private property rights, and private property rights and freedom are fundamental and go hand in hand,” Nielsen said.
The government agencies are “rogue and out of control” with more power than even the president because they do not have any accountability, Nielsen said.
“We have to highlight this so that more citizens understand what’s going on,” Nielsen said. “We have to stand up with John Duarte. There is a livelihood at stake. That is why we must fight with them. We need the average Californian and American to help because this isn’t some strange distant thing. The Duarte family is being oppressed and we have to stand up. We win once in a while and that is why we have to fight.”
Friday’s press conference was filmed for a 30-second video by the Butte County Farm Bureau, which will send it to other farm bureaus along with a written challenge to join the legal battle, Cecil said.
To date the cost has been $2.5 million with another $500,000 expected to be incurred in trial preparation as well as the next two to three weeks of the trial, Duarte said. It has affected his family’s business in their bank account and the relationship with their bank, resulting in another $1 million in banking costs.
“The government knows it can outlast (the average American’s pocketbook),” Duarte said. “That is why we must pull together. If we (as an industry) can’t show that we can pull together there won’t be someone to take the next case.”
The Tehama County Farm Bureau has already joined the supporters of Duarte and will be considering additional financial support, said President Julie Kelley.
“The action taken against John Duarte is a threat to farmers throughout this country and is a blatant example of regulatory overreach by the federal government,” Kelley said.
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