“In my opinion, this is nothing short of theft,” said Radel, who says he has no ties to the raisin industry, which is located mostly far away in Northern California.
The program started during the Great Depression as a New Deal effort to protect growers by giving USDA the power to operate reserves for raisins, almonds, walnuts, tart cherries and other products. After World War II, the other reserves were gradually eliminated, but the raisin reserve survived.
It works like this: in years when high raisin production threatens to cause prices to fall substantially, the RAC can decide that the government should seize part of the crop and keep it off the market by storing it in “reserve,” specifically in warehouses located in California. The result should be higher raisin prices.
Here’s the rub: the government often does not pay the raisin growers for the raisins seized.
“I think it violates the Fifth Amendment [principle] of just compensation,” says Congressman Radel. “Because there’s no compensation. Because they just go in there and take the raisins.”
California raisin grower Marvin Horne agrees wholeheartedly with Rep. Radel. Horne has been fighting to kill the program since 2002, when he refused to hand over any raisins without compensation. Taken to court by USDA, Horne has defended himself by arguing that the program violates the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause, which, as Radel noted, prohibits seizures of property without compensation.
Horne’s case last year reached the Supreme Court, which overturned an adverse decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California and ordered that court to hear Horne’s argument that the Constitution prohibits the government from taking his raisins without paying for them.
At present, according to the government, Horne owes at least $650,000 in fines and 1.2 million pounds of raisins.
“I believe in America. And I believe in our Constitution. And I believe that eventually we will be proved right,” Horne said recently, sitting in an office next to 20 acres of ripening Thompson grapes. “They took our raisins and didn’t pay us for them.”