Indiana agricultural land manager Ceres Farms LLC is suing Amtrak over blocked access to farmland in Niles, Mich.
The lawsuit, which was filed this month in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, alleges Amtrak closed an access road that leads to a landlocked agricultural parcel owned by South Bend, Ind.-based Ceres.
Amtrak had granted previous owners of the farmland perpetual easement to the parcel via a roadway along a high-speed rail corridor, which all past owners of the property used frequently, according to the court filing.
Prior to the blockage, the company received a letter from Amtrak stating its intention to close the access, said Brandon Zick, chief investment officer at Ceres.
“We had responded by saying we use that access point, we do not want it closed,” Zick told MiBiz. “Then it was barricaded.”
The company first became aware of the issue prior to planting last spring.
“Our farm tenant informed us of (the barricade) when he drove by as he was preparing his planting schedule for the spring,” Zick said.
For the 2019 crop year, the tenant was unable to plant that parcel.
“Like any other landowner, when you buy something, you get title insurance,” Zick said. “We made a claim against our title insurer to say the access is important. They, in turn, sued Amtrak for closing the access.”
Amtrak exercised its right to move the case from Cass County Circuit Court to federal court. Through a lawyer, representatives from Amtrak declined to comment for this report.
“Our title insurance company will fight on our behalf to ensure that we have access, either that the blockage is removed or the access is gained in some other way,” Zick said.
The court could potentially force Amtrak to remove the barricade or buy access through another point. For example, a private landowner to the east of the parcel could possibly provide access through a driveway, according to Zick.
“There is no real beef here that we have with Amtrak,” he said. “We don’t believe Amtrak had the right to do it. They believe they did. So, it’ll get adjudicated.”
Ceres also could seek compensation for the lost harvest from the 70-acre parcel, according to Zick.
Ceres Farms, which was launched by Ceres Partners in 2007 to acquire and manage productive agricultural land, currently owns approximately 130,000 acres across 10 states. Last fall, Ceres had $815 million in total assets, according to the company.
Ceres Partners also owns Hickory Corners-based Hop Head Farms, a grower, processor and marketer of hops for the brewing industry.
“When you own land — and we own a lot of farms in Michigan especially — something can always happen,” he said. “When you’re buying a farm that hasn’t been sold in a 100 or 150 years, there are always property line disputes and things that arise. When we buy something, we try to avoid those. You just have to be an active manager of those assets.”
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