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Who'd Steal Raisins From a Farmer?

The USDA has been skimming off the top of farmers' raisin crops for decades.

According to a law from 1937, raisin farmers are required to hand over 47% of their crop to the government each year, without receiving a penny in exchange. One raisin grower, Marvin Horne, is single-handedly trying to take down this archaic law.

The government's annual reserve pool of raisins was established by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937. This law, a relic of the New Deal enacted following World War II, was meant to steady raisin prices once the government stopped buying the dried fruit to send overseas during wartime. Through the creation of the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC), the government gained control over supply and demand, in essence taking control of the raisin market. Farmers were supposed to receive some payment in exchange for the raisins they contributed to the reserve, but in the 2003 season raisin farmers got $0 in return.

Marvin Horne, 68, and his wife Laura, operators of Raisin Valley Farms, are long-time California raisin farmers who do not believe they should have to relinquish nearly half of their crop without appropriate compensation. Claiming that they are raisin "producers" as opposed to "handlers," the Hornes chose not to set aside the portion of raisin crop required of them in the 2002-2003 and the 2003-2004 growing seasons. The USDA, claiming that the Hornes were in fact not exempt from this law, brought an enforcement action on the couple, seeking the market value of the raisins the Hornes allegedly owed ($438,843.53) plus over $210 million in civil penalties and fees. The Hornes brought their case to federal court, arguing that the fines levied on them violated the Fifth Amendment, which states that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use without just compensation."

Seems pretty straightforward, right? The government takes the Hornes' raisins to feed to schoolchildren, farm animals, or to sell abroad. The Fifth Amendment protects against the seizure of private property for public use. Hornes win, government loses. Case closed. 

Well, not quite.

While the Hornes argued that the government took their property and they had a right to compensation for it, the government countered that they never actually took any property. The USDA claimed that they were simply enforcing a standing law. When the Hornes lost their case in a lower court, they appealed and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court asserted that the Hornes did indeed have an appropriate "takings" case, which is what cases such as this one invoking the Fifth Amendment are called. While the high court eventually ruled that it would not make a decision on the case, instead kicking it back down to the lower court to be reviewed again, Justice Elena Kagan still had time to wonder whether this might be "just the world's most outdated law."

Farmers have begun to sell off farmland to make ends meet, as they struggle to raise a crop knowing that the government will take 47% of it without offering any compensation. Meanwhile, the Hornes and their fellow raisin farmers can do little else but await their next day in court.

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