SunSmile owner demands settlement
June 27, 2013
The owner of one of the largest organic farms in Nevada County is ginning up support for his side in an ongoing dispute with Nevada Irrigation District.
George Loftus, owner of SunSmile Farms — a staple in the local agricultural community that produces 45 types of organic produce along with bees and chickens — believes NID's refusal to repair promptly a breach in a water pipeline in 2011 has driven his farm to the brink of bankruptcy.
"NID devastated and ruined my farm," Loftus said Monday. "This is wrong, and my farm is slowly going out of business."
The dispute dates back two years, when a breach appeared in a 12-inch water pipeline running underneath Rough and Ready Highway.
In August 2011, the Nevada County Public Works Department told NID to turn off the water, as the leak was compromising the integrity of the highway.
NID complied with the order in September, right at the time when Loftus needed the irrigated water to prepare trees for the following year and finish off the late-season crops on his 70-acre farm, which soaks up more than 55 million gallons of water annually.
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Loftus contacted NID officials multiple times, he said, in an effort to spur a quick fix to the pipe and have his much-needed water turned back on.
NID originally disputed ownership of the pipeline, asserting that Loftus bore the brunt of responsibility to repair the leak.
After a meeting in May 2012, NID acknowledged ownership of the pipeline, conducted the approximately $2,000 repair project and turned Loftus' water back on in June 2012, said NID Director Nick Wilcox, who represents Loftus on the water agency's board of directors.
"Once it was clear we were responsible for the pipe, we turned the water on two days later," Wilcox said.
Loftus said it was too little, too late.
"The farm's perennial stock — the fruit trees and berries — was severely damaged," Loftus wrote in a open letter. "We grew nearly 400,000 plants in our gardens at the time the water was turned off. The farm was devastated. In spring 2012, I brought in a water truck to water 41,000 onions and 12,500 heads of garlic. Most of the onions and garlic were unmarketable or rejected for wholesale seed."
Loftus filed a claim seeking about a half-million dollars in settlement from NID, Wilcox said. Loftus said his original request was for much less than that.
Wilcox said Loftus did not file the claim in time but added the irrigation district would like to reach a reasonable settlement with the farmer.
"There is no question his trees have been damaged, and we'd be happy to settle with George, but we cannot do so without a second opinion … without doing our financial due diligence," Wilcox said.
NID recently sent out an insurance company to assess the damage done and come up with an estimate of the financial damage to SunSmile Farms.
Wilcox said NID is attempting to establish the negotiating parameters.
If the two parties are unable to reach a settlement by July 23, Loftus has vowed to file suit.
"To date, I am requesting damages for the loss of the trees and berries," Loftus states. "If I am forced into litigation, I will include the damages for the annuals, the gardens, the flowers and the year of being closed."
Loftus is attempting to mobilize public opinion, encouraging members of the public to send letters, emails and phone messages to NID.
Eric Dickerson, a county resident and farmer, said supporting Loftus is important for the entire community.
"Farming is never easy, but if we don't support our local farmers when they come upon hard times, there won't be any farmers to support us when we come upon hard times," Dickerson said.
Dickerson and other proponents of SunSmile Farms have started an online petition aimed at demonstrating the level of support for the organic food distributor.
The petition had 947 supporters as of press time.
The Nevada Irrigation District board of directors meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday at 1036 W. Main St., Grass Valley. Dickerson and Loftus are encouraging members of the public to attend and make their voices heard.
"I am concerned (this issue) presents NID in a bad light," Wilcox said Monday. "I think George would like everyone to believe we are hostile to farming, and that is not the case."
Wilcox said he anticipates a large turnout at Wednesday's meeting and intends to place a special agenda item on the docket relating to the SunSmile Farms issue but will need a vote of four out of the five directors to do so.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or 530-477-4239.