Ag conflict in Nelson

Lundberg rice farm loses effort against chemical facility

Grant Lundberg stands in front of a tractor brought by his grandfather to Butte County in 1937, when Lundberg Family Farms was founded.

Grant Lundberg stands in front of a tractor brought by his grandfather to Butte County in 1937, when Lundberg Family Farms was founded.

photo by tom gascoyne

The 75-year-old Lundberg family organic rice farm in the tiny town of Richvale has lost an appeal to stop an out-of-state chemical company from building a facility to store pesticides and fertilizer on property directly adjacent to the farm’s largest and oldest rice field.

Tennessee-based Helena Chemical Company got the OK from the Butte County Planning Commission for an operating permit last November. The Lundbergs filed an appeal, and on Jan. 29 the appeal was rejected by the Butte County Board of Supervisors on a 4-1 vote that tentatively approved the project with some stipulations.

The Lundbergs have a number of specific concerns about the facility, but the overriding irony is the idea of locating a chemical storage warehouse next to a certified organic crop. If contamination should occur due to water runoff during a flood or “fugitive” dust drifting onto the rice fields under windy conditions, the farm could lose its organic certification for 36 months.

The warehouse and eight 10,000-gallon liquid storage tanks will sit on about 10 acres of the 26 acres Helena purchased from McKnight Ranch back in 2009. At one point Lundberg offered to purchase the property from Helena and cover all costs to stop the project, Bryce Lundberg, Lundberg Farms’ vice-president of agriculture, told the Board of Supervisors. The company, he said, had no interest in selling the property.

“It was really quite a surprise that a well-known company would come in and want to put this sort of facility right next to our largest organic farm,” Lundberg said. “It’s the place we take customers when they come to visit us from all across the country and as well as international visitors. It’s the showpiece we have for customers.”

He said Helena “has to know that our company is really not going to be very excited about it coming in. It’s a chemical fertilizer and pesticide-distribution facility that is really in conflict as far as use of property.”

Lundberg is pretty well respected in the state’s agricultural community. Last month Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.

Garth Davis, project manager for Helena, told the supervisors the company was started in 1957 and currently has 3,000 employees and 350 locations nationwide, including one in Chico and one in Yuba City.

He said the location, which is actually four miles north of Richvale, in the community of Nelson, was identified back in 2007 as desirable because of access to nearby Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The products will be shipped in by train, unloaded from two railroad spurs the company plans to build, and then distributed to area agricultural customers via truck.

He said the Nelson project will also benefit local farms as government regulations increase.

“With regulations on the horizon, managing farmers’ uses of nitrates and other micro-and macro-nutrients will not be an option, but a requirement,” he said. “The Nelson terminal will provide the tools to help customers comply with new regulations.”

He said the company is ready to start the project this spring.

“We bought the property in 2009, and we are still here discussing it in 2013,” he said.

Bryce Lundberg’s brother Grant is the chief executive officer of Lundberg Family Farms. He said the family filed the appeal because of four concerns—storm drainage, increased truck traffic along the Midway, how the other 16 acres of land might be developed, and whether permit conditions will be enforced.

“We went before the supervisors and basically reviewed those areas, and they agreed to a motion of intent,” Grant Lundberg said in a recent interview.

“They still have to put something together. But they wanted to address our concerns about traffic and a turn lane off the Midway. The Midway is a busy road at certain times. It can be empty for hours, and then there are surges.”

He said the Helena property, which sits east of the Midway and north of Nelson Road, is prone to flooding. The project calls for the land on which the warehouse will sit to be raised three feet.

“They have a [flood water] catch basin, and the property is being raised, so it’s probably going to be OK,” Lundberg said. “Going in we felt like it wasn’t a good fit. We wouldn’t put an organic rice field there now. But that’s just how it worked once the process started rolling.”

He said it’s important that the county learn from this, and in the future put agriculture-related projects in proper locations.

“Maybe we could find two distinct places that will work for such projects,” he said. “We’ve got to figure this out. We need to be able to put these kinds of projects in because we are an ag county. We can be successful. Let’s try to be effective with our investment of private and public funds.

“We live here and we work here so we understand the conditions, and that is a little different from an engineer or the permit person, someone who hasn’t been here since 1937.”

Lundberg is diplomatic when addressing the issue, and that’s probably a good thing. In April 2010 Helena successfully sued a community activist in Mesquite, N.M., for defamation and harassment against the company. Arturo Uribe initially was ordered to pay Helena $75,000 in punitive damages, according to a story in The New Mexico Independent.

The company said Uribe defamed it in public statements made during community meetings that accused Helena of environmental violations. He told a television reporter: “We’re going to allow companies and industry to contaminate us and knowingly do it and do nothing about it? I’m insulted; I’m hurt more than anything.”

Uribe had earlier filed a suit against Helena that alleged the company’s emissions were making children sick and causing health problems, including respiratory infections, asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Helena’s attorney, Robert Soza Jr., told the Independent the company “wanted the lies to stop. The amount of money was not important to Helena. We wanted to set the record straight in a forum where proof and evidence matter.”

The story also reports that in June 2005 the state of New Mexico fined Helena $233,777 for not complying with the state’s air-quality laws and regulations. In September 2006 the company did not report a 500-gallon spill of liquid fertilizer and was fined $30,000. In November 2007 the state hit the Helena plant in Mesquite with a fine of $208,331 for 15 air-quality violations.