Results of a pair of California judicial rulings going back as far as two decades indicates plowing and deep ripping may violate federal environmental laws in some instances.

While results from these snafus aren’t necessarily conclusive when it comes to banning plowing, the precedents worry many farmers and ag groups. They maintain these rulings could require farmers to obtain costly and time-consuming permits to work their land. Even for no-tillers who don’t see the benefits of plowing, there are concerns about the government’s role in agriculture.

$45 Million in Penalties?

In 2012, John Duarte, who owns Duarte Nursery in Modesto, Calif., bought 450 acres near Red Bluff in northern California. Because the property included a few wetland acres, Duarte hired a consulting firm to map out areas that were not to be plowed. While a few wetlands areas were accidentally worked to a depth of 4-7 inches, there was no significant damage.

So Duarte was totally surprised when he faced a $2.8 million fine for failing to get a permit for plowing before seeding wheat. Duarte sued the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control board, maintaining they violated his constitutional right of due process by issuing cease and desist orders that kept him from harvesting the wheat. The U.S. Attorney’s Office countersued to enforce the Clean Water Act violation, despite the fact that farmers plowing their fields are exempt from the rules.

Faced with immense legal and business risks and a government threat of up to $45 million in future penalties, Duarte settled in August of 2017. Under the agreement, he admitted no liability, but agreed to pay a $330,000 civil penalty, purchase $700,000 of vernal pool mitigation credits and perform additional wetland work.

Clean Water Case.

In 2000, a federal judge fined Galt, Calif., farmer Angelo Tsakopoulos $1.5 million for “deep plowing” land being converted to vineyards and orchards. The judge ruled deep plowing from 1995-97 resulted in 358 violations of federal law.

The judge gave him the choice of paying a $1.5 million fine or spending $500,000 to finance a 4-acre environmental restoration.

Should You Be Concerned?

Don’t think something similar couldn’t happen to you. Hopefully, Washington bureaucrats will rescind many of the crazy rules put in place over the past decade. And nobody wants the government telling you how to no-till.


NTF March Contents