John Block: Government Overreach

By former USDA Secretary John R. Block

I talked this week with John Duarte, a California farmer. He is in trouble. He bought 450 acres in 2012. He plowed it and planted it for wheat. He now faces $2.8 million in civil penalties because he did not get a permit to plow and plant. He wasn’t even allowed to harvest his wheat crop. The Army Corps of Engineers and California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board said Duarte needed an EPA water permit to farm that land.

He needed a permit since the land has numerous swales and wetlands. This farm land drained into Coyote and Oat Creeks, which are classified as “waters of the United States.” The charge is that he violated the Clean Water Act.

Lawsuits are going back and forth. Duarte sued the Army Corps of Engineers for violating his Constitutional rights. The government counter-sued for failure to adhere to the Clean Water Act. John Duarte told me that in addition to the $2.8 million that they say he owes, other costs could exceed $30 million.

I didn’t think the federal government could deny a farmer the right to farm his land. We have property rights. My farm in Illinois has some low places in some of our fields that could be classified as wetlands. The fields are right along Spoon River – a “water of the U.S.” We have other low spots that we have tilled so they can be farmed. My understanding is that “normal farming practices” are exempt and you don’t need a permit to plow. However, since the Duarte land had not been tilled in recent years, the government said that makes a difference.

Well then, what about the millions of acres that farmers have in the Conservation Reserve Program for up to 10 years? Are they not allowed to plow and plant that land when it comes out of the reserve if it has some wetlands?

This whole Duarte situation is frightening to all of agriculture.

Such regulatory overreach could potentially put our whole industry in a straightjacket. Gary Baise, in our law firm, has been asked to help represent John Duarte. We need to win this one for agriculture.

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


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