USA Today April 5, 2013 (also syndicated nationwide via Gannett)
Fight for the Right to Grow Raisins
by James Bovard
If the Supreme Court cannot smack down the raisin racket, then it should forfeit any pretense of safeguarding Americans’ rights and liberties.
The Supreme Court could soon end one of the federal government’s most archaic practices.
Since the 1930s, the Agriculture Department has turned California raisin growers into pawns of its Raisin Administrative Committee, which can commandeer up to half of the farmer’s crop and then pay them little or nothing for the product.
Marvin Horne, a 67-year-old raisin farmer in Fresno, Calif., was fined almost $700,000 for refusing to surrender control of much of his harvest to the government committee in 2002. Horne, who has been growing raisins for more than 40 years, has battled the raisin committee for more than a decade and describes its regime as “involuntary servitude.”
His challenge — which is supported by many California raisin growers — landed in front of the Supreme Court last month.
According to the Obama Administration and USDA, the Raisin Administrative Committee needs vast power to protect farmers against themselves. Otherwise, farmers might sell too many raisins and cause a plunge in prices. Justice Antonin Scalia aptly described USDA as offering farmers a choice: “your raisins or your life.” Since farmers chose to sell their crop in interstate commerce, the government claims that it is entitled to nearly unlimited sway over the harvest.
The Obama Administration and USDA insist that, even though the government commandeers raisin farmers’ harvest, there is no “taking” because the seizure drives up the price of the remaining raisins.
Justice Stephen Breyer was dumbfounded by this argument, declaring that “I can’t believe that Congress wanted the taxpayers to pay for a program that’s going to mean they have to pay higher prices as consumers.”
Breyer apparently never heard of USDA’s sugar program, which intentionally inflates prices and costs consumers billions of dollars a year. Actually, the raisin regime is even more perverse — since it intentionally dumps allegedly “surplus” raisins on world markets at firesale prices. Foreigners often pay much lower prices for California raisins than do Americans.
Justice Elena Kagan suggested that 1937 Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act, which authorizes the raisin restrictions, could be “the world’s most outdated law.” Though purportedly created to serve farmers, the act creates endless administrative hoops and legal tripwires for its beneficiaries. Brian Leighton, one of the lawyers for the dissident raisin growers noted,”Thieves, murderers and rapists have far greater rights of due process and speedy appeal than do farmers regulated under USDA marketing orders.”
There is nothing about unique about raisins that requires nullifying the constitutional rights of raisin growers. Markets for raisins are volatile — as are the markets for hundreds of other farm products grown in the U.S. The raisin committee’s sweeping powers have failed to prevent vast swings in prices farmers receive. Many California farmers have simply given up, and the acreage devoted to raisin production decreased by 75,000 acres since 2000.
“All we want to do is pack our raisins and sell them,” Marvin Horne recently declared. “The only thing I wanted, along with my group, was to be free.” Free markets are not perfect but they are far superior to the iron fists of government committees that scorn both farmers and consumers. If the Supreme Court cannot smack down the raisin racket, then it should forfeit any pretense of safeguarding Americans’ rights and liberties.
James Bovard is the author, most recently, of a new e-book memoir, “Public Policy Hooligan.”