Court cracks down on nut industry bullying tactic

Tulare County judge rules against Wonderful Co.’s lawsuit claiming largest pistachio processor did not have grounds to sue rival Touchtone Pistachios over permits to expand its operations

TULARE COUNTY – In a court clash among pistachio titans, the nation’s biggest farmer and largest pistachio processor was the first to show cracks in its shell.

On Oct. 28, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Bret Hillman ruled against The Wonderful Company in its lawsuit against industry rival Touchstone Pistachios. Filed in July 2020, Los Angeles-based Wonderful, the largest pistachio processor in the nation, challenged Tulare County building permits issued to Touchstone’s ARO Pistachios in Terra Bella. ARO had applied for permits to add dryers and eight nut storage silos to the 12 they already have on the southern Tulare County property. Wonderful argued the permits allow Touchstone to convert prime agricultural land to industrial uses and were not in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which serves to protect people and species from any harmful effects of development.

Judge Hillman ruled Wonderful did not have standing to challenge ARO who has a similar operation to Wonderful in the area because Wonderful does not suffer any direct impact that would allow such a challenge. In his decision, Hillman stated Wonderful’s own counsel admitted there was no evidence of impacts to employees living or working nearby and that its own farming operations were about two miles from Touchstone’s facility, too far to make them party to the initial land use decision approved by the Tulare County Resource Management Agency.

He also stated Touchstone’s counsel argued that ruling in favor of Wonderful’s lawsuit against a single competitor, not the industry at large, would set a precedence allowing the agriculture giant to “file countless similar claims” against its largest competitor. The judge concluded there is insufficient evidence in the record supporting that its property interests or employees’ health will suffer harm as a result of issuance of the Building Permits.

“Wonderful is, instead, a commercial resident of a general geographic area zoned for farming operations where it has substantial farming operations, like its competitor, Touchstone,” Hillman ruled. “Wonderful’ s interests are not akin to individual residence owners challenging development of a condominium complex in the immediate vicinity of their neighborhood.”

The judge went on to state Wonderful’s interest in this litigation is as a direct economic competitor with direct commercial and competitive interests adverse to Touchstone’s farming operations, not a party motivated by concerns relating to public rights and enforcement of public duty.

Wonderful is owned by billionaire Stewart Resnick who also owns almond, citrus and pomegranate farms in the Valley – the largest player in all of these crops. Resnick has been tangling with Touchstone’s owners, the Assemi Brothers of Fresno, who are in the middle of a court battle in Fresno County. The Assemis claim Resnick uses litigation to burden and destroy competitors. Both are big players in the pistachio industry. Assemis are building a large processing plant in western Fresno County, a project successfully challenged by Resnick causing the Assemis to start over on the permitting of the facility and delaying their plans.

The Assemi brothers recently purchased the ARO farm in Terra Bella and filed plans to expand its operations, setting up this latest dispute. Mike Washam, associate director of Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency, said despite the year-long court case in Tulare County, ARO/Touchstone has already added the improvements on allowed by the disputed permits.

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