Touchstone advances position in pistachio war

Touchstone Pistachios plans to increase capacity at Terra Bella site after courtroom victory against rival Wonderful Pistachios’ environmental lawsuits

TULARE COUNTY – After a courtroom victory against its rival late last year, Touchstone has taken a beachhead in the Valley’s pistachio wars.

Touchstone Pistachios is moving ahead with plans to build capacity at its Terra Bella processing plant. Known as ARO Pistachios, the plant originally had just four storage silos when it was built in 1996. Under Touchstone, the site now has 20 silos with plans to add another 16 for a total of 36 silos. The “Minor Modification” application recently filed with Tulare County says “There will be no expansion of the project site. The intent of the applicant is to increase efficiency for the existing use.”

Touchstone is moving ahead with its plans in Terra Bella after a Tulare County Superior Court judge ruled in its favor over an environmental lawsuit filed by its rival Wonderful Pistachios, the largest pistachio processor in the nation, in an effort to halt construction of additional dryers and silos.

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 Bret 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.

Touchstone alleges the local lawsuit was an expansion of the four-year battle between the major pistachio processors in Fresno County to stifle competition. Touchstone remains stalled on their 2018 plan to build a large 49-silo processing plant near Highway 33 in eastern Fresno County after a series of environmental challenges by Wonderful.

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—and used to do business with Touchstone, owned by the Assemi Brothers of Fresno. The Assemi brothers have since struck out on their own.

The Fresno plant was expected to be operating by now but instead Touchstone is counting on the Terra Bella site to process the increasing volume of pistachio nuts being grown in the Valley. Processors need to add capacity and silos in the Valley as growers continue to plant 30,000 acres of new pistachio trees annually, says Bob Klein of the Administrative Committee for Pistachios. This year’s crop tops one billion pounds.

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