Agriculture · Business · Visalia

Judge rejects Wonderful-led attempt to halt Assemi pistachio plant expansion

Another battle in California’s pistachio wars concluded last Thursday with a Tulare County judge rejecting efforts by The Wonderful Company to halt expansion of a pistachio processing plant owned by the Fresno-based Assemi Family.

The suit, brought by the Los Angeles farming giant against Tulare County, sought to reverse building permit approvals by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors for expanding the Terra Bella-based ARO Pistachio plant, a processing subsidiary of the Assemi Family’s Touchstone Pistachio brand.

Following a one-day trial in mid-October, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Bret Hillman ruled that Wonderful, owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, lacked the standing to seek a writ of mandate.

The Resnicks and Assemis have been locked in a bitter war following a decision by the Fresno family to break off from Wonderful’s pistachio cooperative and launch their own pistachio processing company – Touchstone Pistachios – fueled by roughly 30 million pounds of family-owned pistachio production.

While widely known in 2018, the pistachio break-up went public in late 2019 when Assemi enterprises filed a suit against Wonderful for over millions in unpaid grower bonuses.

In early 2020, Wonderful successfully stalled construction on a massive Touchstone processing plant in western Fresno County over construction and permitting issues.

Hillman, in his ruling, pointed to the definition of a “beneficially interested” party.

It “has been generally interpreted to mean that one may obtain the writ only if the person has some special interest to be served or some particular right to be preserved or protected over and above the interest held in common with the public at large,” he wrote.

In the case against Tulare County, Hillman said, arguments by Wonderful’s legal team to attempt to confer standing based on geographic proximity between the ARO plant and Wonderful facilities were insufficiently supported by the record.

“At the hearing, counsel for Wonderful clarified that their client has a citrus orchard about two miles from Touchstone’s facility.

Wonderful’s counsel admitted at the hearing that there was no evidence submitted of impacts to employees living or working nearby in the record,” Hillman’s ruling reads. “Touchstone’s counsel noted that this was a tenuous connection and argued that Wonderful could file countless similar claims if acting in the public interest but chose to file only one against a direct competitor in the Pistachio business.”

He also agrees with Tulare County and Touchstone lawyers in that added that Wonderful’s attempts to seek an exception from the beneficial interest standard for a writ was unpersuasive

“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,” he wrote.

He added that Wonderful’s timing to challenge construction or operation of the plant on the basis of impacts to its employees health or property interests were not raised when ARO’s processing plant received special use permits from Tulare County in 1996, instead opting to pursue it over building permits issued following ARO’s acquisition by the Assemi family.

“Wonderful attempts to use legal authority governing the Land Use Approvals to impose regulatory burdens on a business competitor with no demonstrable concern for the policy considerations giving rise to that legal authority.”

In a statement, Touchstone operations chief Rudy Placencia celebrated the ruling.

“We thank the Court for its dedication and careful consideration of this case,” Placencia said. “We welcome the decision as an endorsement of fair and open competition, to create increased opportunities for growers throughout the region.”

A spokesperson for Wonderful declined to comment on the ruling.

This story will be updated.

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.