Sustainable Farm Law 101 for Agriculture Professionals and Educators

Final report for ENC18-164

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2018: $74,947.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Farm Commons
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project will develop the long term stability and resiliency of sustainable farmers by proactively resolving legal vulnerabilities and providing speedy pathways to resolutions when problems do occur. We will achieve this result by training Farm Service Agency staff, Extension staff, Resource Conservation and Development staff, Natural Resources Conservation Service staff, community lending entities and loan officers, nonprofit farm advocates, and nonprofit farm education staff in the basics of sustainable farm law. Our workshops will dispel sustainable farm law myths and give educators the basic tools they need to guide sustainable farmers, without overstepping their professional bounds. Training will occur through development of six workshops that increase agricultural educators’ knowledge and confidence in farm law. The workshops will instruct, build confidence, dispel myths, and provide an opportunity for networking. Farmers will serve as workshop co-presenters to ensure the on-farm perspective is highlighted. Agricultural educators will also receive six new tip sheets to help them facilitate resolution of sustainable farm law issues. The tip sheets will serve as internal education and as handouts for farmers, as suits the participating organization. The project team will also adapt 12 existing tip sheets to include state-specific details as necessary to cover each state included. Tip sheets will be distributed widely. We will make sure the project deliverables address the legal issues educators face, and provide the most practical solutions by conducting informational interviews as the project’s first step. Project participants will also provide feedback on tip sheets as they are developed.

Project Objectives:

Outcomes

Short Term: As a result of the workshop, program participants will experience the following outcomes:

  • Increased knowledge of sustainable farm law. Ag educators will know the basic contours of the following legal subjects and issues: 1) land leasing and purchasing, 2) Farm employment law, including minimum wage and workers’ compensation issues, 3) Food safety laws and regulations, including new obligations for produce and diversified farms under FSMA, the nature of liability, food safety-based regulation of value added production, 4) Business entities, including LLC or S Corporation, and what these entities do to protect the farm, 5) Sales regulations including permissibility of direct to consumer sales under the Food Code, and 6) Agritourism and value-added production related issues such as sales tax, liability for injury, zoning, and insurance complications. We anticipate these will be the most desired legal issues for education, based on our experience. (However, we will adjust our final subjects and focus to match the expressed needs of participants. For example, in our 2016 project, participants wanted resources on chemical/pesticide drift response and on fence law.).
  • Increased clarity about the legal position of sustainable and direct to consumer farms within legal frameworks. At present, there are misconceptions within the broader community about sustainable farm law. For example, some think that direct sales to schools, restaurants, or institutional buyers are not legal. However, it is not illegal as a matter of food safety. Within the lending community, there are misconceptions about whether and how farms can form LLCs or S Corporations and still remain eligible for government programs. This can adversely impact diversified farms with agritourism or value-added aspects who are more likely to form these entities.
  • Increased confidence in ability to lead sustainable farmers to resolution of their legal issues. This confidence will come from two areas: 1) Agriculture educators will be able to relay the fundamentals of a legal issue to farmers. 2) They will be able to provide action steps and sources for more information on a legal issue. We know right now that the agriculture educators who use Farm Commons’ resources right now experience increased confidence in their ability to advise farmers. We look forward to seeing this improvement more broadly.
  • Integration of legal education into programming. At least 8 educators will integrate knowledge gained into their existing programming including instructing on farm law, regularly handing out a tip sheet, or including our materials in course packets.

Intermediate Term Outcomes: Within one year of completing our workshop and adopting our tip sheets, agriculture educators will use their learning to do the following:

  • Answer sustainable farm law questions safely, effectively, and with resources that help sustainable farmers move forward with their issue.
  • Advise sustainable farmers in legal best practices and principles that will help them develop stable business models that comply with the law.
  • Provision government and private resources to sustainable farmers, as allowed by law, without misconceptions about the legality of direct to consumer or sustainable farming.

Long Term Outcomes: Within 5-10 years of completing our workshop and adopting our tip sheets, we will begin to ee the following results in sustainable farmers who received information from participating agriculture educators:

  • More quickly resolve legal vulnerabilities because they have access to accurate, timely information that helps them quickly understand their situation and locate the additional resources they need to move forward
  • Avoid encountering legal difficulties in the first place because they were aware of laws and legal best practices from the start. Sustainable farmers will learn about legal obligations at the beginning of their farm business. Sustainable farmers will develop routines and recordkeeping practices that integrate legal obligations.
  • Better access financing and support through private lenders and government programs with fewer misconceptions and an accurate understanding of the legal stability of sustainable farming.
  • Create legally stronger and more sustainable business models for future farmers to emulate. This work will move the sustainable farming community to long-term business models, faster.
  • Be more profitable as they spend less time managing legal complications and have expanded access to markets, financing, and opportunity.

Education

Educational approach:

In guiding agricultural educators to empower farmers to better manage the risks of sustainable farm law, we used three educational approaches. First and foremost, we hosted 6 in-person, day-long workshops that oriented non-farming agriculture professionals to the 10 things they can do to help farmers reduce legal risk. As a compliment, we converted the in-person workshop to a 4-part series of online training events to reach more agriculture professionals. To further enhance the utility of our information, we developed a colorful set of short tipsheets for use with farmers, and a pdf presentation on ag law risk reduction for use by non-farmer agriculture professionals. 7 agriculture professionals have integrated these tipsheets and/or presentations into their educational programming

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Legal risk management for farms, with an emphasis on sustainable, organic, direct to consumer operations
Objective:

Project participants will increase their knowledge in several key areas of sustainable farm law, will feel more confident in their ability to direct sustainable farmers to answers and action steps that resolve legal questions, and will resolve their own misconceptions about the legality of sustainable farms and direct to consumer sales.

Description:

Agriculture educators and support persons want to help farmers navigate farm business structures, liability, farmland leases/ land issues, and other legal aspects of their farm businesses. In fact, 71% of agriculture professionals say legal questions come up at least once per week in the course of their work.

Unfortunately, most agriculture professionals don’t feel confident in guiding farmers to legal resiliency- they worry that they don’t know the law and don’t have accurate resources to offer. The stakes are high: 66% of farmers don’t have adequate insurance for their farm operation, just 7% have a written operating agreement or bylaws. Employment law confusion is endemic. 

We can fix this! With good training, agriculture support persons like Extension agents, agency staff, nonprofit professionals, and technical advisors can provide clear, accurate farm law information that reduces legal risk. Our workshop will show you how.

Join us for a full-day workshop that will help you 1) understand the 12 most important things you need to know about farm employment law, land matters, business structures, liability and insurance, agritourism and adding value, 2) guide farmers to take at least one of our 12 basic steps to build legal resiliency.

You’ll walk away knowing exactly how to stay within your abilities as a non-attorney while guiding your farmer clients to legal strength and resiliency. And, it will be fun. I promise.

Register for our workshop today. It’s FREE and LUNCH is included.

Outcomes and impacts:

As to the projects 10 specific recommendations that non-farming agriculture professionals should make to develop the resilience of sustainable farms, between 61% and 84% of participants had begun issuing each of our 10 specific recommendations to farmers since attending the project workshop. This is a big success as it indicates non-farming professionals were able to follow through with their intentions to begin making our recommendations at even higher rates. Some of this is due to sample bias- those who had made changes were more likely to attend. Still, we are heartened by the very high implementation rates.

We know this work will affect many, many farmers. The majority of respondents indicated they’d reached between 1-9 farmers with the recommendations, within 4 months. If we assume they reached a middle-of-the-road 5 farmers, that indicates the entire project has reached 936 farmers!

We predicted that project participants would feel more confident in their ability to direct sustainable farmers to answers and action steps that resolve legal questions, and we were successful in that. Over half (58% of participants) experienced a modest increase in confidence with an additional 38% seeing a significant increase in confidence.

We were also able to increase participants’ awareness of the resources available to help them reach farmers with accurate legal information. 90% of participants reported either a modest or significant increase in awareness of resources.

We predicted that we would be able to dispel persistent myths about farm law, and the evaluations bore that out. Although difficult to ask directly, several attendees wrote in quotes that they appreciated our active approach to dispelling myths about farm law.

We especially appreciate these two quotes from workshop participants:

“This was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended. Riveting and useful.”

“Go to every land grant university and present this info to their extension services!”

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 Online trainings
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

189 Extension
3 NRCS
32 Researchers
63 Nonprofit
16 Agency
6 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
3 Farmers/ranchers
3 Others

Learning Outcomes

232 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
232 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

As a result of this project, the following number of agricultural support persons said they intended to start recommending the following best practices (or improve their existing recommendations):

Recommend that farmers write management documents like operating agreements or bylaws. 56% or 130

Recommend that farmers have thorough discussions with landowners and/or tenants as they create leases and farmland purchase documents. 41% or 96

Recommend that farmers get leases, sales contracts, and business organizing documents in
writing? 30% or 70

Guiding farmers to appropriate classification of workers among intern/apprentice, volunteer,
independent contractor, or employee? 71% or 165

Recommending business planning that accounts for the full cost of getting work done on the farm? 51% or 119

Recommending appropriate resources to assist with the complex realities of farm employment law? 65% or 151

Recommending that farmers be thorough in their discussions with buyers and customers as they establish sales relationships? 51% or 119

Recommending that farmers contact zoning authorities or otherwise determine what is or is not allowed on their farm operation? 48% or 113

Recommending that farmers make decisions based on zoning code’s realities, and in working with regulatory authorities to achieve the farm’s goals? 51% or 120

Are you recommending farmers purchase appropriate coverage from their insurance provider? 50% or 117

Are you suggesting to farmers the importance of insurance in terms of preventing legal liability and covering for it if legal liability occurs? 50% or 117

Of course, it’s even more important to learn what people actually DID rather than what they simply intended to do. We had strong results in our follow up survey sent 4 months after attending the workshop.

Fully 93% of survey respondents had utilized project materials within 4 months of attending the workshop. 78% had given out project materials to farmers or had referred to our materials themselves to assist farmers.

As to specific recommendations, between 61% and 84% of participants had begun issuing each of our 10 specific recommendations to farmers since attending the project workshop. This is a big success as it indicates non-farming professionals were able to follow through with their intentions to begin making our recommendations at even higher rates. Some of this is due to sample bias- those who had made changes were more likely to attend. Still, we are heartened by the very high implementation rates.

We know this work will affect many, many farmers. The majority of respondents indicated they’d reached between 1-9 farmers with the recommendations, within 4 months. If we assume they reached a middle-of-the-road 5 farmers, that indicates the entire project has reached 936 farmers!

317 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
935 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

We predicted that project participants would feel more confident in their ability to direct sustainable farmers to answers and action steps that resolve legal questions, and we were successful in that. Over half (58% of participants) experienced a modest increase in confidence with an additional 38% seeing a significant increase in confidence.

We were also able to increase participants’ awareness of the resources available to help them reach farmers with accurate legal information. 90% of participants reported either a modest or significant increase in awareness of resources.

We predicted that we would be able to dispel persistent myths about farm law, and the evaluations bore that out. Although difficult to ask directly, several attendees wrote in quotes that they appreciated our active approach to dispelling myths about farm law.

Success stories:

This was a great workshop–much more engaging than I was expecting & learned a ton, including all that I didn’t even know I didn’t know. Thanks!

Great resources/Great explanations/Great presentation/Very useful information

This was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended. Riveting and useful.

Very impressed Rachel, thank you!

I think these workshops are very valuable especially for early career educators and for producers. I enjoyed it very much thank you.

I have used the learning and increased awareness of the issues to inform my work with beginning farmers as they seek land access or do business planning for a farm start-up. The legal backdrop is so important to ensure greater success going forward.

Recommendations:

We know this information is incredibly valuable to participants as we received multiple comments like the following:

“Go to every land grant university and present this info to their extension services!”

But, the harsh reality is that it can be quite challenging to attract participants to the workshop itself. We struggle with the fact that few people want to come to our workshop, but everyone loves it after they leave! We are looking at finding “leverage” to better motivate attendance at these workshops.

There remains a huge need for these workshops. Reaching a couple dozen participants in each state is good but not nearly enough to start truly shifting the resilience of producers. We are working on ways to deepen awareness of the need to address legal issues as a community.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.