Jack LaPant didn’t come from a farming family and had no personal knowledge of agriculture. But once he switched careers in his early 20s and bought a ranch in a remote area of Northern California, farming became his life and his livelihood.
He never expected this decision would lead to his being targeted by the U.S. Army over an environmental law they had no authority to enforce.
Yet, after 47 years in the industry, Jack found himself in an eight-year legal battle in which he suffered losses of upward of $1.2 million.
As a young man, Jack worked for Pacific Gas and Electric, living in various cities across Northern California.
But in 1975, he left that job for greener pastures, relocating his wife and children to a large ranch he purchased, where he set out to become a farmer.
Mostly self-taught in the art and science of agriculture, Jack learned to grow various crops over the years, including wheat, alfalfa, grains, sunflowers, corn, almonds, walnuts, and olives. He had no grandiose dreams of becoming rich; Jack just wanted a bit of earth to plant crops, earn an honest living, and build a legacy to pass on to his children.
Nearly five decades later, Jack is still a farmer operating a one-man-band operation.
Earning a living as a farmer comes with its own unique set of difficulties, and Jack’s decision to purchase new land in 2012 was financially driven. By that time, the repercussions of the 2008 housing crisis had finally trickled down to the remote corners of Northern California, and Jack needed to sustain his modest living.
Given the collapse in the housing and real estate markets, he was able to purchase a farm in Butte County at a bargain price. He hoped this would be his shot at financial prosperity. But these dreams would turn out to be nothing more than frustrated hopes.
Jack’s wheat crops are the primary source of food for his cattle, another staple of his ranch. Understanding the maze of red tape every modern farmer is forced to navigate, Jack did his due diligence before he started plowing the land to grow wheat to feed his cows.
He checked with not one, but two federal agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It never occurred to him to check with the Army—an honest mistake, considering the Army is a branch of the military and not typically associated with farming.
Nevertheless, that is who brought forth, and perpetuated, the case that nearly ruined Jack financially.
Typically, local branches of the USDA maintain historic records on farmlands in their areas of jurisdiction that show soil, water, and cropping patterns. Jack consulted these records to be sure the property was suitable for his plans.
The USDA gave his plans the green light, assuring him that previous owners had grown wheat on his land before he bought it. So Jack proceeded to plow 900 acres of his land and planted his crop.
Then the Army intervened.
In 2012, an Army representative, who claimed to have just randomly been driving past Jack’s farm, noticed his wheat crop.
Upon closer inspection, he tipped off government bureaucrats, who sued Jack for not obtaining a Clean Water Act (CWA) “dredge and fill” permit from the Army before plowing his own land, even though the statute doesn’t require permits for “normal farming practices” like Jack’s.
For one or two months out of the year, Jack’s property housed some small ponds, which were the result of seasonal rainfall. Typically, after 60 days or so the water would evaporate, and the land would return to normal. Because of these “vernal pools,” as they are called, the Army claimed authority under the Clean Water Act—authority they didn’t actually have.
Congress built an exception into the CWA for “normal farming practices,” which should have protected Jack’s plowing operations. The CWA also allows the Army to file suit only over violations of its own required permits. Jack’s supposed violation was under jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had decided not to take any legal action against him.
Yet, as abhorrent an action as it was, the Army decided to go after Jack.
But he wasn’t going to give up without a fight. With Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) by his side, he fought back in court seeking justice against this unlawful act by the Army.
PLF argued on Jack’s behalf in a legal battle lasting eight years, at which point he had a difficult decision to make.
The judge had ruled against another farmer in a similar case, causing Jack to lose faith that he had any chance of obtaining justice.
When he purchased the farm, he had assumed he would eventually pass it on to his children. But as the legal fight dragged on and his age continued to advance, he worried about the case becoming a financial burden to his kids.
In the beginning of 2021, Jack decided to do what he felt was best for his family and reached a settlement with the Army. Even though the Army never proved, the court never ruled, and Jack never conceded that he broke any law, the settlement came at a high cost, with $350,000 in penalty and mitigation payments and easements on hundreds of acres to the federal government. The Department of Justice (DOJ) lowballs the total value Jack surrendered at $1.2 million.
But it didn’t end there.
Adding insult to injury, the DOJ issued a press release about Jack that is riddled with lies.
The release paints a picture of Jack as an “agricultural developer” out to destroy the environment, with profit as his only motive.
But Jack isn’t the owner of some giant corporate farming operation. He isn’t out there trying to build malls, golf courses, or hotels; he’s an independent farmer just trying to provide for himself and his children’s future.
The release also claimed the settlement “involves filling streams and wetlands,” and that Jack had “not traditionally farmed the land,” but instead had tried to profit by illegally converting it to new uses.
The DOJ described his wheat crop as “agricultural development” carried out by “earthmoving equipment” and “dragging metal shanks through the ground to break up” the soil. This is an extremely exaggerated definition of plowing one’s own land to plant wheat.
For the record, Jack did not “fill” any streams or wetlands. He ran a plowing tool a few inches deep to open the soil to plant wheat in it—which we can all agree is a “normal farming practice.” He stuck to the existing contours of the ground and didn’t plow in any streams.
The DOJ knew this and still sided with the Army, dishonestly claiming that Jack filled up watercourses, which he never plowed in, with dirt to level them.
The Justice Department also knows that growing wheat on the property was not a new use—their experts agreed to this point. And Jack had made sure to confirm this before he even began planting.
An Army enforcer then asserted that Jack ignored advice from a consultant to seek a permit from the Army. But he never got any advice to that effect. The Army also knew that Jack checked with two different USDA agencies before he began any plowing or planting.
Yet, Jack was forced to stand by as the DOJ and the Army perpetuated lies about him while nearly destroying him financially.
The Army was then bold enough to say they are “always willing to talk to the public and provide information on permit requirements.” This case proves otherwise.
Numerous Army staff testified under oath that they have no clear rule that tells you when they think you need a permit or not, and they won’t even talk to you until you do an expensive and time-consuming hydrologic study of the property and disclose everything that has been done on the property going back years.
But they will prosecute you for not following whatever rules they have magically decided upon.
As a result, Jack has become a casualty of this bureaucratic nightmare.
To put this case into perspective, the federal government made up their own reasons to steal more than a million dollars from a hardworking farmer for having the audacity to grow food on his own land without first receiving permission from the Army.
While one might think the Army should be focusing on more important tasks, like defending the country against its foreign enemies, in Northern California, it is spending time and resources attacking innocent American farmers.