Final report for EDS21-25
Business formation, sales contracts, farmland leases, loans, employment law regulations, food safety liability, crop insurance, liability for slips or falls, partnership negotiations, succession and more plague farmers and ranchers during the life cycle of the farm. Distracting them from their core work and draining the farm of resources, these issues affect quality of life and destabilize our innovative direct to consumer and organic farms. This project changes that. By creating an ecosystem of support, farmers are empowered to make the risk reducing changes that they want for their business.
The starting point is our Discovering Resilience Workshop curriculum which empowers producers with the knowledge, resources, and communication skills to take 10 specific risk-reducing action steps. Our workshops leverage peer-to-peer support as farmers identify and instigate solutions to business law needs like insurance, written leases, zoning code compliance, and employment rules, to name a few. The project begins with the project team reviewing needs and legal challenges for Georgia producers. Then, Farm Commons’ attorney experts research Georgia law and adapt the curriculum to speak to regional challenges focused on employment issues. Next, we build in mechanisms for farmers to support peers by sharing their own wisdom and perspective on the law. Our curriculum emphasizes creativity, relationships, and communication as keys to proactively addressing legal complications, which is a far more proactive and successful approach than teaching detailed legal minutiae.
We build on this base to ensure the project meets the diverse needs of Georgia producers. An online workshop allows us to reach producers who perhaps have health issues, transportation issues, or family obligations. It also insulates the project from the risks of our current global pandemic. We also develop Georgia-specific farm employment law resources.
We don’t stop at education. We host follow up sessions help participants dig in deep on the action steps they choose for their farm. By bringing producers together to share their experiences, we create a space for brainstorming around shared challenges and for collective action to eliminate persistent barriers.
By proactively addressing legal issues, we can prevent the failure of farm businesses due to inadequate insurance, partner disputes, lost sales contracts, lost farmland access, unpredictable debt and more, thus improving quality of life for farmers. This project also improves profitability by reducing the likelihood of expensive legal complications, while ensuring sustainable farm businesses thrive, thus improving environmental quality and building more just food system.
- Host 2 Discovering Resilience workshops, both online. One course was held in a “live” environment with farmers meeting and talking to each other in online meetings. The second course was self-paced, with farmers engaging in learning material on their own time and collaborating in a Q&A platform. 95 farmers total attended the workshops.
- Host 2 workshop follow up sessions to share challenges in meeting farmers’ action plans and instigate action to resolve them.
- Research, write, and distribute a resource on Georgia-specific laws, given to all workshop participants, and distributed to an additional 18
Short Term Outcomes:
- 110 farmers learned the 10 legal best management practices across 5 subjects including employment law, diversification, business structures, land matters, and liability/insurance. This is 97% of the total 113 farmers this project reached.
- 72 farmers gained at least one of 5 essential legal risk reducing skills including analyzing insurance needs, discussing leasing terms, identifying diversification liability risks, assessing the value of workers’ compensation, and selecting an appropriate business structure for their goal. This is 73% of the 95 who registered for the workshop due to no show rates.
- 75 farmers became more legally resilient by completing or planning the implementation of at least 3 of the 10 legal best management practices. This is 79% of the 95 farmers reached in the workshop.
- 71 farmers felt more empowered to recognize and address legal risk on their operations and within their community. This is 63% of farmers reached through the project as a whole, consistent with past experience.
Long Term Outcomes
- Farms with the greatest legal risk vulnerability (direct to consumer, organic, and agritourism-based operations) become stronger and more resilient.
- Sustainable farms approach risk management confidently, with legal background information and knowledge of the resources and opportunities available to them.
- Sustainable farmers establish connections to peers as they define and achieve their risk management goals, all of which sustain beyond the life of this project.
The educational approach for this project was developed in the depths of the global pandemic, and with the assumption that no in-person meeting would be possible. We hosted an online workshop in two formats, each took place over the course of 5 weeks. The first format was a self-paced experience where learners could take the entire curriculum at their own pace and entirely through video and text-based learning. The second workshop was “synchronous,” meaning that learners met each other and the instructors online for a 90 minute session each week, while watching short videos and doing brief reading as homework ahead of each meeting. Both formats offered robust opportunity for question and answer time. The self-paced option featured two optional online meetings just for asking questions and discussing progress in the course. The synchronous course featured an additional 30 minutes of Q&A time at the end of each weekly meeting.
The workshop itself was developed with the best practices of online learning in mind. It features a combination of short video-based learning, reading text, and doing interactive exercises. Every workshop participant (in both the self-paced and synchronous format) received a hard copy workbook. The workbook (funded separately) contained interactive exercises and activities such as tearing out perforated cards and affixing them in order of priority, checklists, and memorization games. As a result, we were able to support many different learning styles, despite being in an online environment.
For both workshops, we focused intently on assessing the curriculum’s relevance for a diverse audience. We recruited a majority of BIPOC-identifying learners and engaged willing participants in extra feedback/evaluation activities to assess how our approach met their individual cultural context. Learners who engaged in the extra feedback activities received compensation for their time and effort.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We describe in the educational approach section how the curriculum for our two online workshops was developed so we will use our space here to describe our outreach approach. We had intended to work closely with Georgia Organics to do outreach on the workshops. But, the continuing disruptive force of the pandemic forced changes to our plan. Instead, we worked with a variety of nonprofits and organizations with audiences in Georgia to reach our target audience. Fortunately, our subject matter- farm law- is fairly unique and few other trainings exist on farm law so we were able to reach enough learners. That being said, we did not reach our goal of 200 farmers reached. Also because of the pandemic, online learning seems to have reached a saturation point with farmers. Many other educational offerings had returned to an in-person format by 2023, and so we struggled to attract as much interest in our online-only workshop.
The most state-specific farm law material is employment law, and we prepared a resource Selected Essentials in Georgia Farm Employment Law, to supplement our online workshop. The resource is about 15 pages long and describes the particulars of farm employment law in Georgia including minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest breaks, etc. It also refers to other more complex material on determining whether labor is agricultural or non-agricultural (and thus, which rules apply) and how workers’ compensation is administered, among other details.
Writing governance documents can help establish expectations and create solutions to the individual's/operation's needs and circumstances
Business Structures like LLCs and corporations can protect personal assets from business liabilities
A farmer who makes more in personal income from farming/ranching than the average farmer/rancher may benefit from filing taxes as an S corporation
The classification of workers on a farm/ranch as independent contractors, interns, volunteers and/or employees is legally defined by state/federal law
Whether or not a farm/ranch can take advantage of an agricultural exemption from overtime depends on whether the worker is performing agricultural or non-agricultural labor
Workers' compensation insurance prevents lawsuits against the farm/ranch business; operations without workers' compensation must purchase liability insurance if they want coverage for worker injuries
A good lease is one that prevents problems before they occur by helping those involved come to consensus on a wide range of issues
A good land contract and/or lending documents are ones that prevent problems before they occur by helping those involved come to consensus on a wide range of issues including default, payment rates, etc
Due diligence (researching the land's legal history and usage, to uncover easements, rights of way, leases, multiple owners, and more) is an important step when considering leasing or buying farm land
Zoning codes can prohibit many forms of farm diversification
Injuries incurred from an educational activity, agritourism event, value-added production, or other non-farm activities are generally NOT covered under a typical farm liability policy, without a specific endorsement or rider.
This project created an ecosystem of empowerment for sustainable farmers to prevent issues and create more stable, resilient sustainable farm businesses. It directly leads to improved profitability in 2 ways: 1) When farmers proactively create relationship-defining paperwork (such as leases and partnership agreements), they have more predictable and efficient relationships. This means less time and money wasted sorting out issues that could have been avoided. 2) When have adequate insurance for their risks, they recover faster. This leads to fewer unprofitable years.
When a farm business suffers a loss without adequate insurance coverage, experiences a regulatory enforcement action, gets into a dispute with a business partner or a buyer, or loses access to rented farmland, the farm isn’t just less profitable, it often shuts down entirely. This project proactively resolved risks that eliminate farm businesses: poor insurance coverage, deficient leasing and sales agreements, lacking business partner agreements, regulatory non-compliance and more. For example, over half of our learners did or were implementing plans to change their employment practices and research their zoning code to come into compliance.
This project also helps farmers sustain and improve the environmental quality and natural resource base on which we depend. Many farms that adopt sustainable environmental production and marketing practices become more legally vulnerable because they operate in legal gray areas; uncertainties that emerge when we apply laws designed for commodity operations to non-commodity farms. Farms adopting environmentally sustainable practices need to be especially proactive in communicating with regulators, creating proactive agreements, and finding good risk management strategies. If we neglect this, we will lose the very farms we depend upon to improve environmental quality. For example, many direct to consumer farms use volunteers or host community events. With about 70% of our learners indicating they had or planned to talk with their insurance agent about correcting their coverage for community events, we know the workshop made these farms more resilient, allowing them to avoid the outcome where a customer injury spells the end of the farm because there was no insurance.
This project enhances the quality of life by helping farmers resolve concerns that keep them awake at night. Quality of life improves because this project helps sustainable farmers express their values: a lease that recognizes one’s sustainability practices is personally fulfilling. Protecting one’s legacy from liability or partner disputes adds immeasurably to the purpose farmers wake up with each morning. Learning with and from one’s peers also helps do decrease isolation and feelings of collective powerlessness, too.
Quality of life also includes expanding fairness, equity, and access to all agricultural producers. This project has baked into its structure mechanisms for developing this. We specifically created a safer space for BIPOC identifying folks by recruiting a majority of learners who identified as BIPOC. We also sought additional feedback from BIPOC learners about whether and how they felt their experience was reflected in the content, and made modifications to improve the curriculum.
Here are a few quotes from our project evaluation that illustrate the outcomes achieved in participants' own words:
The pandemic ongoing through mid-2022 caused project contingencies and complications (delays, shifts in priority for partners) that we are hopeful will make it an outlier. We sincerely hope future projects don't have to deal with pandemic contingencies. That being said, we do worry that online-only education is becoming a relic of the pandemic era. Into 2023, we saw waning interest in online education.