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Fresno County, Assemi Family Settle Over Unpermitted Pistachio Plant Development

Jan 7, 2020

Fresno County has settled with a family of pistachio growers over unpermitted building on what the family contends will be the largest pistachio plant in the world. 

The County issued permits back in September to Ventana South, LLC and Touchstone PIstachio, LLC for the construction of 49 siloes in Cantua Creek. Both companies are owned by the Assemi family of Fresno. 

However, in early December, a nut division of the Wonderful Company filed a complaint against the county, alleging that it ignored the state’s environmental review process for the Assemi family’s developing plant. 

According to the settlement, the county issued a stop work order after finding unpermitted construction on the property in Cantua Creek. The Wonderful company’s lawsuit says the county should also remove the unapproved construction.

In the settlement, the Assemi brothers also agreed to set aside $250,000 to cover any costs the county might accrue in reviewing the project.

This comes months after the Assemi brothers filed a lawsuit against Wonderful Pistachios for allegedly breaching its contract and withholding money due for 2018 pistachio crops. 

The complaint, filed in September with the Fresno County Superior Court, alleges that the Wonderful Company retroactively reduced the price it promised the Assemi family for pistachios delivered in 2018. 

The Assemi family operates a number of pistachio farming operations in the Central Valley, 15 of which are named in the complaint. For 15 years, those farms have provided pistachios to the Wonderful Company. According to the complaint, the contract between the parties noted that the Assemi family would receive the same price-per-pound for its pistachios as other growers, although that payment could come in the form of crop installments or bonuses. The complaint alleges that in late 2018, CEO of Maricopa Orchards Kevin Assemi was sent an email from Andrew Azaldo of Wonderful, saying that the family would not be receiving a "Grower Partner Bonus." The bonus, which would have been the final payment for crops delivered in 2017, accounted for roughly 30 percent of the crop's price. The email to Assemi said this bonus was discretionary, and only for growers who were extending their contract for the following crop year, which the Assemi family wasn't planning to do. The complaint alleges that this had not been a part of the parties' contract in the past.

In 2018, the Assemi Family had begun carrying out plans to establish its own pistachio processing plant to open in August 2020 under the name "Touchstone Pistachio Co." The complaint says that Stewart Resnick, the owner of the Wonderful Company, told Kevin Assemi in January of 2019 that he would be "going to war" with the Assemi family "to make sure you are not successful with your plant."

In a statement from September, the Wonderful Company called the lawsuit “completely frivolous and was filed for the sole purpose of defending their decision to breach the contract with Wonderful Pistachios, which requires them to fulfill the delivery of their 2019 crop to us." Scott Whelan, the attorney representing the Assemi family, did not respond to a request for comment. Both parties will meet this month for a case management conference.

The Wonderful Company declined to comment on the settlement between Fresno County, Ventana South, LLC and Touchstone PIstachio, LLC.

Disclosure: This story involves members of the Assemi family who are involved in both Granville Homes and Maricopa Orchards, which are corporate sponsors of Valley Public Radio.