The West

After ‘fake farmer’ claim, Devin Nunes reports he owns small farm that earns no income

Who is Devin Nunes?

Devin Nunes is a Republican representative for California’s 22nd congressional district.
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Devin Nunes is a Republican representative for California’s 22nd congressional district.

For the first time in more than a decade, Rep. Devin Nunes is reporting that he owns a stake in a farm.

The new disclosure comes a year after Democratic groups accused Nunes, R-Tulare, of being a “fake farmer” and unsuccessfully challenged his description of himself as a farmer on California ballots.

Nunes, R-Tulare, reported on a newly released financial disclosure form that he owns a Tulare County farm that generates no income for him and is worth less than $15,000.

Nunes has never before claimed a farm as one of his assets in annual financial disclosures, according to public records dating back to 2007.

That suggests he either bought a small part in a farm recently or he improperly filed previous financial disclosures, according to Delaney Marsco, legal counsel on ethics for the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.

“Either he had a tiny stake in this farm all along and he’s been improperly filing financial disclosures, or he bought a tiny, tiny farm this year in order to protect his reputation as a farmer in his district,” Marsco said.

A search of property records did not show any land bought by Nunes or his wife in 2018 and the only current property under their ownership is a home in Tulare. Past records show he did own farmland in western Tulare that he purchased in 2003, 2004 and 2005, but parcel numbers indicate those are now under different ownership since at least 2008.

The farm was not listed on transactions or gifts on his 2018 financial disclosure, but Marsco said if the land generated no income that wasn’t necessary.

Nunes grew up on a farm. His family owned a large dairy in Tulare until his relatives moved the operation to Iowa starting in 2006.

Nunes’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Democratic groups and retired Tulare County farmer Paul Buxman last year challenged Nunes’ ballot designation as a farmer for the 2018 California election. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla rejected the challenge, allowing Nunes to continue describing himself as a farmer to voters.

Nunes this month filed a lawsuit against Buxman and other groups involved in the ballot challenge, alleging they conspired against him using un-reported political contributions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.” Nunes does not list what type of product is produced on his farm.

“That’s either the tiniest farm we’ve seen or it’s poor acreage,” said Mike Lynch, a veteran Democratic political strategist long based in the San Joaquin Valley, who wondered if the amount listed might be a typo. “I’ve never heard of farmland that cheap.”

Nunes’ family moved their family dairy farm from Tulare to Sibley, Iowa, in 2006 and 2007, according to a report by Esquire last year. Nunes’ uncle Gerald still owns a dairy in Tulare, according to Esquire.

Agriculture is the largest private employer in the county, according to the Tulare County Farm Bureau, accounting for nearly a quarter of all jobs and $7 billion per year in gross production value. Tulare County was ranked third in the top counties for agriculture production in 2017 and leads the nation in dairy production.

In Tulare County, cropland values ranged from a low of $15,000 to almost $30,000 per acre in 2017, according to the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Its annual report attributed the wide difference in values to whether the property relies on wells or has access to another water source. Current real estate listings in Tulare did not show any farm or ranch land available for as little as $15,000 an acre.

Nunes also bought a stake valued at between $15,000 and $50,000 in a wine company called Perinet located in San Luis Obispo in 2018. It is part of the Alpha Omega Winery collective, in which Nunes has a limited partnership. He also has a limited partnership in the San Luis Obispo winery Phase 2 Cellars.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the average price per square foot of land in Tulare County is about $150, meaning land worth at most $15,000 would be about 100 square feet. That price reflects the average cost per square foot of homes in Tulare County, not farmland. This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. on Aug. 15, 2019 to reflect the change.

Fresno Bee reporter Tim Sheehan contributed to this report.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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