Court Monitor

Farmers Win Property Rights in Raisins

A popular American love song in the 1960s, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," was later featured with singing animated raisins in a humorous ad campaign in the 1980s. The wildly successful ads were actually sponsored by a state governmental entity, the California Raisin Advisory Board, in its promotional efforts for California farmers. Today California produces 40% of the raisins in the entire world, and exports a third of its massive raisin crop.

It takes 4.5 pounds of fresh grapes to produce one pound of raisins, and a strong market price for raisins is necessary to cover their substantial costs. To help prop up the market price, the federal government has had a program since the Great Depression of forcing farmers to set aside a percentage of their raisin crop each year, thereby reducing the supply of raisins and increasing their value. In 2002-2003, the set-aside percentage was a whopping 47% of raisin farmers’ crops, and the federal government showed up at raisin farms to order farmers to load 47% of their raisin crop onto government trucks, for disposal by the government.

At 8:00 one morning in 2002, the federal government arrived at the raisin farm of the Horne family and demanded that it load nearly a halfmillion dollars' worth of raisins into the government truck, without the Hornes receiving payment in return. The Hornes refused. The government then slapped the Hornes with a fine of $200,000 plus another $480,000 for the estimated market value of the raisins themselves.

The Hornes turned to the courts to avoid paying this crippling penalty. Litigation dragged on for more than a decade, until it was finally resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 victory for property rights. Horne v. Dep't of Agriculture, 135 S.Ct. 2419 (2015).

The simple question presented to the Court was whether the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires the government to pay just compensation to raisin farmers when the government grabs their raisins, as required when government takes someone's land. The Supreme Court answered "yes," ruling that people have as strong a property right in their raisins as they do in their land. The government may not take people's raisins without giving them just compensation, in the amount of the market value for the raisins, which in this case would have been about $480,000 if the Horne family had turned over the raisins.

Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring in the decision, questioned whether the government has a right to take farmers' raisins even if the government does pay for them, since it is doubtful that raisin-grabbing qualifies for the "public use" limitation of the Fifth Amendment. After all, the government is not using the raisins to build a new highway for the public, and there is no real "public use" for the government to grab and throw away tons of raisins.

The government should have "heard it through the grapevine" long ago that it was violating the Constitution, and never put the Horne family farmers through this decade-plus of litigation.