John Block: Duarte vs. Big Government

By former USDA Secretary John R. Block

You may have heard about the John Duarte wetlands case.  John Duarte, a California farmer, bought 450 acres in 2012.  He plowed and planted it to wheat.  The Army Corps of Engineers, the California Water Quality Control Board, and the EPA came after him.  He was looking at a $2.8 million fine and a $40 million mitigation penalty for plowing without a permit.  This whole story is unbelievable, but I’m not making it up.

Facing a possible bill from the government that would bankrupt him, Mr. Duarte reached a settlement costing him $330,000 in civil penalties and $770,000 in wetlands credits.  The fight is over – for now.

According to Gary Baise (also with OFW Law and Chair of the Trump Agriculture Advisory Team), who helped to get this case settled, “This case leaves many open questions.”

I talked with Mr. Duarte last spring.  I couldn’t believe what I heard.  The farm had some wetlands and swales.  The farm drained into a couple of creeks which are classified as “waters of the U.S.”  The government said that he violated the Clean Water Act.

I didn’t think the government could deny a farmer the right to farm his land.  We have property rights.  Duarte used a chisel plow, and the government said it was moving the soil, and that was not allowed.  When he bought the farm, it had been in the Conservation Reserve Program.  The government said that you need to get a permit to plow land that had been in the Conservation Reserve Program. 

My farm in Illinois has some low places in some fields that could be classified as wetlands.  The fields are along Spoon River – a “water of the U.S.”  My understanding is that there is an exemption for normal farming under the Clean Water Act.  The Army Corps of Engineers’ position was that since the land had not been farmed in 20 years, Duarte needed a permit to plow.

Okay, if that is the way it works, I have land in the Conservation Reserve Program that has not been farmed in more than 10 years.  If I don’t keep the land in reserve, and decide to plow it and plant it to corn, do I need a permit?  Would they even give me a permit?

I don’t think we have heard the last of this question.  The settlement with Duarte is very confusing and is frightening to farmers across the land.

Next week, I will be on the farm in Illinois – harvest time!

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.  If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit johnblockreports.com.

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