Assemi brothers suing farming giant Wonderful Pistachios over nut payments

Pistachios are at the center of a lawsuit filed by Assemi Brothers against Wonderful Pistachios.
Pistachios are at the center of a lawsuit filed by Assemi Brothers against Wonderful Pistachios.

The Assemi brothers, known throughout the region for their home building, philanthropy and farming, are suing one of the biggest titans in agriculture over what could be millions of dollars worth of pistachios.

Filed in Fresno County Superior Court, the civil lawsuit accuses Wonderful Pistachios and its billionaire owner Stewart Resnick of breach of contract.

Wonderful Pistachios, whose operations are centered in the San Joaquin Valley, is by far the undisputed leader in the industry, producing the top brand of tree nut in the United States. For years, Wonderful has sourced nuts from more than 800 growers, including the Assemi Brothers company owned by Farid, Farshid and Darius and their associated farming companies.

Darius Assemi is also chief executive officer of Granville Homes. And the family, led by Farid Assemi, is the driving force behind the California Health Sciences University’s College of Pharmacy in Clovis.

When Assemi Brothers announced it was opening its own processing plant in Fresno County in about a year, it apparently did not sit well with Resnick, whose agriculture empire includes other well-known Wonderful brands such as almonds, mandarins, pomegranates and sweet grapefruit.

What’s in the lawsuit

On Jan. 22, Kevin Assemi, chief executive officer of Maricopa Orchards LLC, the company that oversees the Assemis’ farming assets, met face-to-face with Resnick to discuss their business relationship. The meeting did not go well, according to the lawsuit.

“In that meeting, Mr. Resnick told Kevin Assemi that ‘I am going to war with you and I am going to do stuff to you that I would not do to other competitors because I have to make sure you are not successful with your plant,’” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Resnick also said, ‘I am going to destroy you and make sure you fail so that no grower ever leaves and tries to make it on their own processing and marketing.’”

Resnick also is alleged to have bad-mouthed Assemi Brothers during Wonderful Pistachio’s grower meeting in Visalia on March 15. At the meeting, Resnick allegedly told the audience that the Assemis were leaving to build their own processing plant and that “he was going to (expletive) them.”

Assemi Brothers alleges that as a consequence of the proposed departure, Wonderful Pistachios is attempting to short-change the company for its 2018 crop of pistachios. What’s missing is the “Grower Partner Bonus,” a payment that is given to growers at the end of the season. That bonus makes up about 30% of the price that is paid to the grower. And for large growers like Assemi and its farming companies, that could add up to millions of dollars, an industry analyst said.

Wonderful’s rebuttal

Wonderful officials argue that Assemi is not entitled to the bonus because it will no longer be delivering pistachios to Wonderful.

The lawsuit accuses Wonderful Pistachios of breach of contract and is seeking a jury trial. Fresno lawyer Walter Whelan, who represents Assemi Brothers, wants the court to declare “that if a crop is delivered by a departing grower, Defendants do not have the right to reduce the total price per pound paid to the grower.”

Wonderful officials issued a statement about the lawsuit saying, in part: The Assemi family lawsuit is 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.”

The statement went on to say that in 26 years, Wonderful Pistachios has never had a legal dispute with any grower.

“We will continue to focus on what is important, maximizing grower returns for all of Wonderful’s loyal grower partners and providing the fastest and best harvest turn times in the industry,” the statement said.

Valuable crop

As one of California’s more successful crops, pistachios is expected to have another good season this year.

Richard Matoian, executive director of Fresno-based American Pistachio Growers, said the industry may reach a record-breaking billion-pound crop in 2020.

“We have seen worldwide demand continue to increase and in particular in China, despite the tariffs,” he said. “We shipped more this fiscal year than we did last fiscal year.”

From Sept. 1, 2018 to Aug. 31 of this year, the industry shipped 232 million pounds to China and Hong Kong, up from 211 million pounds for the same period last year.

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A Valley native, Robert has worked at The Fresno Bee since 1994, covering various topics including education, business and agriculture. He currently covers courts.