A Legal Guide to the Business of Farming in Vermont

Final Report for ENE04-083

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2004: $59,069.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Debra Heleba
Northeast SARE
Co-Leaders:
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Project Information

Summary:

We developed a legal guide to the business of farming in Vermont to assist service providers in their professional activities with colleagues and clients. Service providers are using the guide as a general desk reference as well as to aid farmers in the development of their farm business plans. The guide was authored by Vermont attorney Annette Higby and several other contributing authors (including attorneys and staff from a number of Vermont agricultural organizations) who provided their expertise in the nine chapters that make up the guide. Topics addressed include: the legal structure of the farm business; farm transfer and estate planning; farmland tenure and leasing; and regulation of farm labor, organic agriculture, agriculture and land use, and on-farm food processing and marketing.

Performance Target:

5000 people will learn about the guide.
Achieved and exceeded performance target. Through email announcements and press releases, more than 5,000 people learned about the guide. For example, our outreach efforts included articles in regional publications like the Small Farm Quarterly Magazine (27,000 distribution) and local media like the Addison Independent.

200 personnel from Extension, USDA agencies, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, non-profit organizations; consultants; private practitioners; legal services offices; and others in the state of Vermont who provide technical assistance to farmers who are new to farming or are working to enhance the viability of their existing farms will access the guide on the Internet.
Achieved and exceeded performance target. Based on AccessWatch (an Internet traffic analysis tool) data, there were 3091 accesses of the Guide in the month of December 2006 alone. One hundred sixty-three individuals accessed the Guide from the official entry page (which allowed us to “capture” their email addresses for follow-up evaluation purposes) and several hundred more accessed the Guide through other ways (i.e. skirted the entry page and directly accessed the Guide or individual chapters). Of these 163 individuals, 8% were Extension personnel, 9% were USDA employees, 4% were state employees, 12% worked at non-profit organizations, 6% were attorneys, 13% were school/university educators, 6% were lenders, 21% were farmers, and the remaining were other professionals or unknown.

150 will use the guide as a reference in providing assistance to their farm clients.
We were unable to ascertain this performance target within grant timeline. We conducted two follow-up on-line evaluations. The first was an evaluation sent via email; we received 15 responses. Of those, 87% used the Guide as a general desk reference in their work with farmers. The second was an on-line evaluation (developed in SurveyMonkey); we received 11 responses. Of those, 36% said they used the Guide as a desk reference.

50 will use the guide as an on-line resource to 200 clients as an aid in drafting their farm business plans or conducting their farming business.
We were unable to ascertain this performance target within the grant timeline. We do, however, know that four Vermont Extension professionals who routinely work with farmers on business planning as well as eight business planning advisors accessed the guide. Through our SurveyMonkey evaluation, we learned that all farmers who responded used the Guide in drafting their business plan.

150 will integrate the guide in their professional activities with colleagues and clients in training peers, advising clients, delivering presentations or when authoring articles, fact sheets and web pages.
Again, we were unable to ascertain this performance target within the grant timeline. However, a tally of those who accessed the guide from our official entry page revealed that 75 professionals (including those from Extension, USDA, Agency of Agriculture, lending institutions, accounting and law firms, land trusts, and other non-profit organizations) accessed the guide. From our 15 evaluations, we learned that professionals are integrating the guide into their professional activities. When we asked these people why they accessed the guide, nine said to seek information on business planning, one said to prepare a factsheet or presentation, and one said to work with a farm viability client. Others were interested in answering a specific question or learning more about a specific issue, including farm transfer, environmental regulation, zoning and land use, and organic farming. Our SurveyMonkey evaluation revealed that one quarter of the respondents said the Guide will change their work with farmers. One respondent said this change will be “better and faster response to farmer inquiries; better referrals.”

Introduction:

The project developed a comprehensive legal guide to the business of farming in Vermont. The primary purpose of the guide was a tool for use by agricultural service providers to better integrate legal issues into their existing business planning curricula and/or service delivery. The intent of the guide was not to become a substitute for the services of an attorney, but rather to help farm service providers and the farmers they serve:

- Formulate farm business plans in the context of a wide range of legal issues that impact directly on farmers’ bottom lines;

- Recognize the key legal issues in business formation, farm operation, estate planning, farm credit, and agricultural environmental regulation;

- Recognize when an attorney’s services are necessary; and,

- Become better informed consumers of legal services.

The guide was designed to be useful for educators working with start-up or re-strategizing farm operations as well as those service providers that assist farmers in assessing the current viability of their farming operations. It addressed legal topics of value to both conventional and alternative farm enterprises and presented pedagogical approaches suitable for a range of learning styles and settings. The section on business formation, for example, covered traditional farm partnership formation as well as non-profit and cooperative formation in Vermont.

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

This project was originally conceived from Attorney Annette Higby’s participation as a speaker in a business planning course called “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity.” The course includes a section called “The Legal Terrain” that covers legal considerations of which farmers should be aware when starting or expanding their businesses. Attorney Higby developed an outline from questions posed by class participants, and through her continued participation in the course, observed several commonly asked questions. This outline eventually formed the core of the guide’s contents.

To ensure that the guide was relevant to the needs of service providers and farmers, project
beneficiaries were involved at key steps throughout its development. For example, prior to submitting the proposal, we conducted a brief survey of potential project beneficiaries to determine the guide’s direction and usefulness. Service providers were asked to prioritize topic areas that the guide could address, how they might use the guide, and their interest in reviewing it. All respondents indicated they would use the guide in serving their farm clients. When asked how they would use the guide, most participants referred to the guide as a resource they would use to help inform farmers. For example, one respondent said, “As a means to identify specific resources. Especially important, [the] foundation of legal guidelines prior to a consumer of our program further develops his/her operation or creates a new one.” Another said, “I would provide the guide as an additional resource to FARMS students in their final two years of education, while working on business plans.”

Several suggested specific topics they wanted to see addressed in the guide, such as cooperatives and labor issues. Others suggested that the guide be available in both paper and web-based formats. A majority of the respondents offered to review the guide, and included comments such as, “I believe that I may be able to offer some useful feedback to this project upon review of the guide’s content.”

We continued to solicit feedback from service providers throughout the guide’s development. For example, a proposed table of contents was developed and sent to several service providers, as well as farmers, for review and comment. We used this feedback to further refine the focus of the guide on the following topics: legal structure of the farm business; farm transfer and estate planning; farmland tenure and leasing; agriculture and land use regulation; farm labor regulation; water quality and environmental regulation; farm insurance; regulation of organic agriculture; and regulation of on-farm food processing and marketing.

Our goal was for the guide to be comprehensive, and therefore we determined that it must be a collaborative project. To that end, we sought out professionals with extensive background in the topics covered to serve as either contributing authors or reviewers. For example, Sandy Levine, staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation was asked to write the chapters on land use and environmental regulations as she has extensive experience with the agriculture provisions under Act 250 and other land use law in Vermont, as well as regulations governing Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and other Clean Water Act regulation. As another example, Brian Norder, director of the Vermont Food Venture Center, was asked to write the chapter on regulation of on-farm food processing and marketing, as he routinely works with food producers and is extremely knowledgeable about state and federal regulations around this issue.
Service providers and farmers were also asked to review the draft of the guide for clarity and relevance. We sent the draft guide to 29 reviewers. These included four farmers, six Extension specialists, six attorneys, and other public agency and non-profit organization personnel. Reviewers completed a survey sheet to respond to questions about the usefulness of the guide, level of detail covered, and missing topics. They also included questions and comments directly on the text of the guide, which was forwarded to the authors for final revisions.

First and final drafts of the guide were reviewed and edited by a professional editor and the guide layout was designed by a professional graphic designer. The guide was made available on-line, both by individual chapter and as a whole document. We created an entry page to capture user’s email addresses for the purpose of a follow-up evaluation but found that many people who accessed the guide did not use the entry page.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

The following show the project’s milestones.
May – June 2004: Project leaders develop project beneficiary distribution list and develop a draft detailed table of contents.
July 2004: Table of contents and a survey sheet is distributed to ten project beneficiaries and four farmer clients seeking feedback on topics and appropriate educational strategies.
August – September 2004: Table of contents is finalized based on project beneficiary feedback. Contributing authors are identified and contacted. Lead author Attorney Higby begins drafts of her sections.
October 2004 – October 2005: First drafts of guide are prepared. Some contributing authors complete their drafts in late 2004. Some contributors submit incomplete or insufficient drafts, necessitating Attorney Higby to spend significantly more time than originally planned to conduct legal research and writing of remaining drafts.
July 2005: Editor Miranda Smith completes review of much of the first draft.
October 2005: Editor Miranda Smith completes her review of the remaining sections.
October – December 2005: A draft of the guide is sent with a survey sheet to 29 reviewers. We receive 11 reviews, including completed surveys and mark-ups of the drafts.
January – May 2006: All authors make revisions to their sections based on reviewer comments. Final edits by Miranda Smith are completed.
August – October 2006: Artwork is created and layout of the Guide by graphic designer is completed.
October – November 2006: A website for the Guide is created.
November 2006: Press releases about the availability of the Guide is distributed via the Internet directly to service providers and through the media.
December 2006: An email evaluation is sent to 163 individuals who accessed the Guide through the official website entry. We receive 15 responses.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

According to AccessWatch, an Internet traffic analysis tool, the Guide has been accessed more than a thousand times per month since it was made available on-line. The chart below shows the number of accesses per month to individual chapters as well as the guide as a whole. AccessWatch also helped us learn how people were finding the guide on the web through referring links like the Vermont Food Venture Center and NoNAIS.org.

One hundred sixty-three individuals accessed the Guide from the official entry page (which allowed us to “capture” their email addresses for follow-up evaluation purposes). Of these, 8% were Extension personnel, 9% were USDA employees, 4% were state employees, 12% worked at non-profit organizations, 6% were attorneys, 13% were school/university educators, 6% were lenders, 21% were farmers, and the remaining were other professionals or unknown. We emailed these individuals an evaluation. Of the 15 who replied, four indicated they were Extension employees, four were from non-profits, three were USDA employees, two were farmers, one was from the Agency of Agriculture, one was an attorney, one described their profession as “other.” Eighty-seven percent (13) said the Guide increased their awareness of farm legal issues. Most (13) said they downloaded it to use as a general desk reference. In addition, they described the following as other reasons for accessing the Guide:
1 to prepare a factsheet or presentation;
1 for working with a farm viability client;
2 to answer a specific question;
1 to learn more about a specific issue;
9 sought info on business planning;
7 on farm transfer;
6 on environmental regulation;
6 on zoning and land use; and
1 on organic farming.

When asked about the usefulness of the Guide, 80% (12) said it was extremely or somewhat useful. Sixty percent (9) said that as a result of using the Guide, they would make changes in their farming or in their work with farmers. Several had additional comments about the Guide including the following.
- “An extremely useful document for any farmer.”
- “Well organized and readable.”
- “We have asked all FSA offices to download a copy.”
- “Great work on this document.”
- “I hope this document will be updated on a regular basis – It is a very useful resource.”
- “I will expand the class discussion related to legal issues now that there is a resource.”
- “Thanks for the resource.”
- “Good job.”
- “The guide is a good tool for people to review providing them a basic understanding of the laws. This allows them to save time and money when dealing with lawyers and accountants by knowing what questions to ask.”
- “The legal aspects in terms of financial matters (UCC filings, mortgages) could have been explained in greater context.”
As an additional outcome of the Guide, we learned that one reader, Marian White, a farmer and former Agency of Agriculture employee, is using the Guide as a required reading for a Sustainable Agriculture course she is teaching at the Vermont Law School during the Summer of 2007.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The following show the project’s milestones.
May – June 2004: Project leaders develop project beneficiary distribution list and develop a draft detailed table of contents.
July 2004: Table of contents and a survey sheet is distributed to ten project beneficiaries and four farmer clients seeking feedback on topics and appropriate educational strategies.
August – September 2004: Table of contents is finalized based on project beneficiary feedback. Contributing authors are identified and contacted. Lead author Attorney Higby begins drafts of her sections.
October 2004 – October 2005: First drafts of guide are prepared. Some contributing authors complete their drafts in late 2004. Some contributors submit incomplete or insufficient drafts, necessitating Attorney Higby to spend significantly more time than originally planned to conduct legal research and writing of remaining drafts.
July 2005: Editor Miranda Smith completes review of much of the first draft.
October 2005: Editor Miranda Smith completes her review of the remaining sections.
October – December 2005: A draft of the guide is sent with a survey sheet to 29 reviewers. We receive 11 reviews, including completed surveys and mark-ups of the drafts.
January – May 2006: All authors make revisions to their sections based on reviewer comments. Final edits by Miranda Smith are completed.
August – October 2006: Artwork is created and layout of the Guide by graphic designer is completed.
October – November 2006: A website for the Guide is created.
November 2006: Press releases about the availability of the Guide is distributed via the Internet directly to service providers and through the media.
December 2006: An email evaluation is sent to 163 individuals who accessed the Guide through the official website entry. We receive 15 responses.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Potential repercussions of our project include the following.
- By covering legal concerns of both conventional and alternative farm enterprises, it helps to ensure that farms in the Northeast will be diversified and profitable.
- By covering the legal issues related to on-farm processing and food safety, the guide can help ensure that farmers provide healthful products to their customers.
- By describing the environmental regulation of agriculture, the guide can help ensure that farmers manage soil and water resources wisely.
- With the guide, farmers have a tool they can use to make more informed decisions about the start-up and expansion of their farm businesses.
- Service providers can deliver accurate legal information to their farmer clients.
- The guide can serve as a model to be replicated in other Northeast states.

Future Recommendations

The nature of this project necessitates periodic updates. Laws do change and affect the information included in the Guide, and we hope to be able to update the Guide in the future. While we were pleased with the overall content of the Guide, additional information could be added to make it more comprehensive. For example, we realized that a few service providers would have benefited by adding a succinct legal definition of a farm and/or farming operation. A section on credit would be very useful to service providers and farmers alike. Future updates and additions to the Guide may be informed by the comments received from evaluations. These included comments like “I wanted more nuts and bolts about food processing, marketing and distribution regulations.”

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.