Empowering sustainable farmers with proactive, community-centered farm law education, resources, and networks.

Progress report for LNC19-415

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $198,199.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Farm Commons
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Rachel Armstrong
Farm Commons
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Project Information


This project, “Empowering sustainable farmers with proactive, community-centered farm law education, resources, and networks,” delivers the following outcomes:

  1. Reduces Risk: 744 farmers learn 12 core principles of farm law and take at least one of 12 specific, legal risk reducing practices across 6 farm law subjects.
  2. Empowers Farmers: 703 farmers feel empowered: they recognize their inherent abilities to address legal risk on their operations.
  3. Trains Farmer-Leaders: 24 farmers receive specialized training as a workshop co-presenter and take a leadership role in assisting peers with farm law risk reduction.
  4. Trains Attorneys: 6 attorneys are trained in the core distinctions of farm law and assist at least 25 farmers in meeting their risk reduction goals

Issues surrounding 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 during the life cycle of the farm. Distracting them from their core work and draining the farm of resources, these issues destabilize our innovative direct to consumer and organic farms the most. This project moves to change that by fostering an ecosystem of support where farmers are empowered with to reduce legal risk and leverage legal opportunity.

This project achieves these results through workshops titled, “Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm,” farmer leadership development, and attorney training. The key is our proven Farm Law 101 curriculum which has a track record of at least 70% of farmers reducing legal risk through at least one action step taken within 3 months. The curriculum has also seen at least 63% of farmers become more empowered to recognize their capabilities. Workshops are led by trained farmers and Farm Commons staff together, under a curriculum that emphasizes creativity, relationships, and social values as keys to proactively addressing legal complications.

We will host 12 workshops, one in each North Central Region state over 2 and half years, reaching 40 farmers each. The in-person workshops will be complimented by a remote-learning opportunity featuring the workshop Toolkit and recorded workshop video segments, accessed by 30 farmers in each NRC state. Farmers will create an individual “My Farm Law Action Plan,” for reducing their farm’s vulnerabilities. Peer-cohort groups will support farmers as they move forward on their action plan. Facilitation by a practicing attorney will ensure farmers have the direct, tangible support they need to make change.

Project Objectives:


  1. 744 farmers learn 12 core principles of farm law.
  2. 744 Farmers take at least one of 12 specific, legal risk reducing practices.
  3. 703 farmers feel more empowered to recognize and address legal risk on their operations.
  4. 24 farmers receive specialized training and serve as workshop leaders in assisting peers with farm law risk reduction practices.
  5. 6 attorneys are trained in farm law and assist at least 25 farmers in meeting their risk reduction goals.

Please see Optional Attachment for a list of the 12 core principles, risk reducing practices, and farm law subjects.


When a business owner in the United States needs legal information, they seek an attorney. Any beginning business owner receives the constant recommendation is to meet with an attorney to arrange legal issues. As a result, 73% of small businesses have worked with an attorney in the last 3 years. (1) When it comes to farm businesses, this recommendation is not working. 16% of farmers chose to meet with an attorney about their most important legal issue, over the entire course of their business. (2) When asked why, farmers give two most important reasons: 1) Attorneys do not help, and 2) Attorneys do not understand. (3) Farmers are pointing to a deeper, more systemic problem in the legal services industry as a whole. Many industries are growing frustrated with a lack of clear, helpful services from attorneys about how to launch and grow their businesses. (4)

The state of farmers’ legal risk management is not good. Farmers are operating with serious legal vulnerabilities. The wide majority of farmers are vulnerable to regulatory enforcement, partner or vendor disputes, liability exposure, and more. According to data gathered on an ongoing basis at Farm Commons, 51% of farmers are vulnerable to losing their lease, 42% are vulnerable to a zoning code enforcement. 45% of farmers do not have basic liability insurance for their operations. (5) Noncompliance with farm employment laws is endemic, although hard data is difficult (and unethically hazardous) to track. We estimate that half of all farmers are not familiar with their obligations under minimum wage, overtime, and payroll reporting for all their workers.

These vulnerabilities are pervasive. Nearly every farm that treats interns differently than regular employees is vulnerable to minimum wage, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance lawsuits. Every farm with a verbal lease could lose access to that land within a year. Without a written lease, farmers cannot rely on state law to protect their cover cropping or other sustainability strategies. Insurance companies won’t offer assurance that food safety incidences are covered if farms sell directly to consumers. Local zoning authorities shift their interpretation of agricultural zoning codes, to the peril of anyone who has started an agritourism or education venture. Farms are receiving advice to form LLCs and corporations, without mention of how crucial it is to divide their business from personal bank accounts. Partners and spouses farm together without creating any written partnership agreement, later discovering they have no way of parting ways without destroying the farm’s viability. (6)

On a community-wide scale, these vulnerabilities risk the incredible promise of sustainable, direct to consumer and organic farm businesses represent to the North Central Region’s agricultural community.

Many of these vulnerabilities can be resolved with proactive, contentious decision-making, grounded in knowledge. Other vulnerabilities can be resolved when farmers work together to create community-level solutions and influence government agency interpretation or insurance company policies. The point is: each of these problems has a solution, if we choose to work towards it.

Farm Commons was founded with the mission of resolving the legal vulnerabilities faced by farming communities, especially the difficult and nuanced issues of direct to consumer, organic, and agritourism operations. Our solution is twofold: 1) We write and distribute an extensive print, audio and curricular resources on farm law matters and 2) We use the principles of effective adult education in farm law education. The second solution is certainly difficult, but every bit as crucial as the first.

Adults need educational experiences that allow them to reflect on their own situation, leverage their learned experiences, and engage with peers. (7) Too many farm educators are doing legal education by bringing in an attorney to present for an hour or two. The result often looks more like a sales pitch than a workshop. Farmers don’t gain decision-making tools or practice with risk reduction skills.

Farm Commons develops of farm law curriculum that empowers farmers to understand and create solutions to complex farm business law issues, within an ecosystem of support. The Approach and Methods section will explain how we achieve that. The remainder of this section will explain why our particular approach is so important and timely.

North Central SARE has funded essential projects on farm law education, but none have done extensive workshops for farmers themselves. In 1999, NC SARE funded the development of, “The Legal Guide for Direct Farm Marketing,” which, although out of print, continues to be a necessary resource. (8) Farm Commons received a 2013 NC SARE Research and Education grant to host a series of webinars and write 4 publications on farm law, with the most significant being a 325 page, “Farmers Guide to Business Structures.” (9) That project resulted in a “real” book, released for sale through SARE in 2018. (10)

There is a limit to what print and webinar-based education can achieve. Most people do not learn best through print materials or webinars. It can be difficult and isolating to discover one’s legal vulnerabilities, alone in one’s house. Without any connection to others who are also going through the same experience, farmers can quickly feel overwhelmed and powerless. A farmer may discover her or she needs to talk with an insurance agent from a book… but has no one to turn to when the insurance agent gives a confusing response. The power of in-person workshops that create peer-to-peer networks is unmatched. Considering how difficult it is to get farmers in a room together, online opportunities are still needed compliment in person workshops. Workshops can cultivate strong community dialogue and connections, so that online have a dialogue to connect into.

Farmers have been heavily involved in the creation of this project and our curriculum as a whole. Beginning with our 2013 NC SARE project, farmers told us that they wanted a longer workshop- a couple of hours wasn’t enough. They also told us that they wanted time to network and they preferred peer to peer learning. We first trialed our “farmer co-presenter” approach (detailed in the Method/Approach section) because a group of farmers invited us to do a presentation in 2014, under the requirement that we co-present with a farmer. It was wildly successful and their genius idea and is now the foundation of our curriculum! We routinely get calls from North Central Region farmers asking for a workshop. We then ask farmers, “What local or regional farm organization should we ask to host the workshop?” This project represents those answers- the Partner Organizations we recruited are those that farmers recommended to us. Ross Lockhart (a farmer involved in this project- see his letter of commitment) recommended the North Dakota Farmers Union, for example.

Workshops are essential because farmers need to take charge of creating solutions where solutions don’t exist. An example helps illustrate this. Farmer Sally discovers she is vulnerable without a thorough, written lease. Sally goes to Landowner Bob and asks to sit down with him to talk through their lease arrangement, hoping it will be easy to put something in writing over coffee. As Sally and Bob talk, they discover they aren’t sure who should be paying for the cover crop seeds or whether Sally should be allowed to deconstruct and take the hoophouse (which she rebuilt after a snowstorm) when the relationship ends. Instinct and cultural training suggest Sally and Bob should go to an attorney for answers. But in reality, an attorney doesn’t know any more than Sally or Bob does about what is fair in these circumstances (assuming the attorney even knows what a hoophouse is ;). Sally, Bob, and other farmers like them are in the best position to decide for themselves what is fair, as they are the ones most affected by the situation. It’s crucial that we create space for farmers to dialogue about challenging issues of fairness like these- and issues in employment law, spousal/business partnerships, succession and more. We need to create spaces (physical space and mental space) for these hard conversations to happen.

Of course, attorneys are an essential part of this process, too. Sally and Bob will likely come up with a terrific solution to their legal issues, if they have the knowledge and peer resources. But, they still need an attorney to make sure the proverbial ts are crossed.

Right now, a qualified attorney who understands farming is very difficult to find. (11) Two law schools in the country that focus on farm law. (12) About 10% of Farm Commons’ online users are attorneys and law students, as there are very few other sources of information on this unique field of law. Unless the attorney grew up on a farm or has farm work experience, it can be difficult to learn the nuances of this industry. Rural practitioners also suffer from a lack of support, as mentorship languishes and very few individuals choose a rural practice. (13)

This project addresses that limitation by training attorneys. First, this project provides education in the nuances of farm law and farm businesses. Then, we give attorneys the chance to work with farm businesses in a supportive environment. Although we only reach 6 total attorneys, as a community, we don’t necessarily need more than 2 attorneys in a single state, if they have remote practice capabilities. Law student debt and the expense of operating a rural practice serving clients with limited willingness or ability to pay are other difficult issues which this project is not designed to address.

Although we have a long way to go in building authentic, farmer-led problem-solving capacity for farm law complexities, we are at the starting line. We understand the vulnerabilities, and we know how to foster the solutions. Now is the time to invest, before things get bad. Right now, state and federal enforcement of farm employment law is not tremendously active. Farmer-landowner lease disputes are not widespread. Tragedies not covered by insurance haven’t materialized with any frequency. But, it’s a matter of time. If we succeed in growing the number of successful sustainable farms, but fail in addressing their legal vulnerabilities, we will watch many more farm businesses succumb to preventable legal problems.

Instead, let’s build the community’s capacity to create authentic, community-driven solutions to complex farm law issues!

(1) NFIB Research Foundation: National Small Business Poll. Volume 5, Issue 2, The Use of Lawyers, 2005.
(2) A Bryan Endres, et al. “The Legal Needs of Farmers: An Analysis of the Family Farm Legal Needs Survey,” 71 Mont. L. Rev. 135. 2010.
(3) A Bryan Endres, et al. “The Legal Needs of Farmers: An Analysis of the Family Farm Legal Needs Survey,” 71 Mont. L. Rev. 135. 2010.
(4) “Too Many Legal Awards—Too Little Client Satisfaction.” Mark Cohen, Forbes.com. July 2, 2018
(5) Unpublished survey data. Farm Commons, 2019.
(6) See many of Farm Commons resources including, “Farmers Guide to Business Structures,” “Hosting Safe, Legally Secure Farm Events,” “Managing the Risks of Interns and Volunteers,” and “Farm Insurance: Navigating Common Options.”
(7) Effective Presentations: How to Develop and Deliver a Farmer-Friendly Talk, by Seth Wilner, University of New Hampshire Extension.
(8) “The Legal Guide For Direct Farm Marketing,” By Neil D. Hamilton, 1999.
(9) “Protecting Diversified, Direct-Market, and Value-Added Operations with Smart Business Structures, Written Agreements, and Regulatory Compliance.” LNC13-348, PI: Rachel Armstrong
(10) Rachel Armstrong, et al. “Farmers Guide to Business Structures,” SARE Handbook Series ; 14.
(11) Robin Runge, “Addressing the Access to Justice Crisis in Rural America,” American Bar Association Human Rights Magazine, Vol. 40, No 3. September 2018; “Lawyer Shortage in Some Rural Areas Reaches Epic Proportions,” NPR Broadcast, December 26, 2016.
(12) “My Path Becoming an Agriculture Lawyer in New York City,” by Cari Rinker, www.rinkerlaw.com, Aug 30, 2012
(13) “Rural Wisconsin Lacking Lawyers, Especially Up North,” Wisconsin Public Radio Broadcast, August 23, 2016.



This project involves detailed legal research, which does not involve a hypothesis. In the sense that research is the process of analyzing information and arranging the results in a fashion that was not previously available to citizens, this project involves research. This project involves extensive and detailed analysis of the legal obligations and mechanics of direct to consumer and smaller scale farms and ranches in America. This kind of research involves researching statutes, regulations, and case law and creating a cohesive set of obligations. To analysis, the research team applies insight and perspective to arrive at a strategic risk mitigation strategy for farms. It is difficult for us to separate the research and education portions, as the process of legal research isn't as "pure" as compared to scientific research because of the necessity of applying insight and perspective to assemble the resulting strategic risk management plan. 

Materials and methods:

The materials involved in legal research are access to Westlaw and Wolters Kluwer databases. Attorneys do a detailed study of the statutes and regulations, and analyze the material to arrive at a comprehensive articulation of the legal obligations. We were fortunate to leverage a team of volutneer attorneys to supplement project researchers, as the pandemic resulted in the project team having to completely re-write the workshop curriculum and to build an entirely new, online platform for hosting the workshop, which took significant staff time away from research. The result of the staff or volunteer attorney efforts are a legal memo. The research is then complete and the project shifts to the education phase, where the legal text is translated into a set of rational, prioritized action steps or priorities that a small business owner can use in the course of their business. 

Research results and discussion:

We have created a comprehensive set of detailed legal memos for each state in the North Central region, which we are using to craft our educational materials for the workshops. 

Research conclusions:

We will complete this section after the educational phase is complete, as that helps to determine what is truly important, based on the feedback we get in the workshop itself.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this project aimed to host an in-person farm law workshop in each state in the North Central region, plus a recorded workshop component for those unable to attend. Because each workshop was geographically bound to the physical distance around the workshop location, we had partners lined up to assist with recruitment. Here was the framework we outlined for the project, pre-COVID. 

  1. Establish participatory agenda; schedule workshop and open registration.
  2. Train farmer co-presenters
  3. Do outreach on each workshop
  4. Host each workshop
  5. Convene peer cohorts, alongside trained attorney facilitator and peer mentor
  6. Do outreach on the Do It Yourself version of the workshop
  7. Evaluate success of project and indications towards long term goals

Up to March 2020, things seemed normal. Here is what we had done:

  1. We finalized our existing in-person workshop curriculum and adapted it for the legal and business climate as of January 2020. This included revising our modules to accommodate shifts in the law as well as writing and testing three new interactive workshop activities that focused on land leasing, creating a business managerial document, and negotiating farm succession.
  2. We developed, wrote, and designed a beautiful workshop workbook/toolkit. The toolkit (which we decided to call a workbook, complimented by in-workshop resources) was designed to be used in conjunction with our in-person workshop curriculum. It helps users draft their own, customized action plan for reducing legal risk. It does this by helping each farmer/rancher apply the curriculum’s 10 best practices for legal risk management to their own situation. It guides participants to set specific goals, name timelines, and outline specific actions they will take. We had the workbook printed, delivered, and warehoused (funded under a different grant awarded after this one).
  3. We worked closely with project partners on deck for a 2020 workshop to schedule in-person workshops including setting dates, selecting venues, arranging facility equipment needs, planning travel and lodging, recruiting participants, recruiting farmer co-presenters, writing outreach material, and securing meal/refreshment needs.
  4. We drafted and distributed outreach toolkits to our partners containing newsletter, email, and social media outreach support materials. We also selected and prepared graphics to support outreach and compiled hints for securing our target number of registrants.
  5. We trained farmer co-presenters under a detailed farm law training curriculum to enable them to present the workshop alongside us. This involved farmer co-presenters watching 6 training videos and participating in 5 group phone conferences to discuss the material. They also spent several additional hours analyzing their own legal dynamics and preparing their individual action plans. We reviewed their action plans and provided input. We also assisted them in integrating that input into the workshop presentation overall.
  6. By March 2020, we hosted 3 of our scheduled workshops (with a 4th added with supplemental funding) before moving quickly to cancel the remaining 2 scheduled for March and April. This required cancelling flight and lodging arrangements and seeking refunds, cancelling facility arrangements and seeking refunds, cancelling print orders, meals/refreshments, sending cancellation notices to all attendees. We were successfully refunded most of our costs.
  7. We rescheduled the cancelled workshops for Autumn 2020. In June 2020, we also cancelled those dates and made the determination to host all programming online for the remainder of the grant term.

At that point, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a complete overhaul of the strategies used to achieve our core objectives. We simply could not convert an 8-hour in-person workshop to an online program without a huge investment of time and resources, if we wanted to be successful. Although our in-person curriculum was good, it was at the borderline in terms of being too boring, and the energy of our presenters combined with food and activities saved it. Putting it online as is would have been a terrible choice as it would not have maintained people's attention and would have felt like serious drudgery for busy farmers. We felt reviews would be bad and we would not succeed in reaching as many people. We also felt it would sacrifice our outcomes. People learn differently in an online environment and if we didn't adapt to that, they would not learn at all.

So, here is what we did over 2020 to preserve our ability to meet our outcomes in a pandemic environment. (We are very proud of these developments and feel that the curriculum is much better as a result. It was a great opportunity to make some improvements.):

  1. From June 2020 to December 2020, we completely redeveloped our workshop curriculum to convert the 7-hour in-person experience to a 5-week online event. This was a huge undertaking. The curriculum is now comprised of 5 modules, done over a series of 5 weeks. Each module includes pre-work, which is 1-2 pre-recorded videos that teach famers the core legal knowledge they need. The videos are complimented by selected reading homework. Learners also complete an individual assessment each week. Then, learners attend a group online meeting each week as well. The group meeting focuses on communication and dispute resolution skills that are essential to legal resilience. Learners go through activities and discussion in large and small groups together. Although we could not re-design or re-print our workshop workbooks, we re-arranged the curriculum to still integrate them. As a result, each learner engages in a wide variety of learning forms from watching videos, to doing activities in a book, to participating in online discussion.
  2. Also from June 2020 to December 2020, we put the technological infrastructure in place to successfully offer our workshop curriculum to farmers in a remote environment. We selected a workshop platform over which to host the pre-work exercises and the online meetings. We uploaded and arranged the online workshop platform so learners could easily access each weeks’ videos, reading, assessments, and online meeting links. We selected and set up the post-workshop coaching software and systems. We developed and recorded all our pre-work videos. We also redeveloped our website to take registration for and administer all the workshops efficiently. We had to choose new vendors for the financial transactions as Farm Commons rather than our partners are now responsible for collecting workshop registration fees. This was a huge amount of work but we made substantial progress by December 2020 (for a successful launch in Feb 2021). The costs of this redevelopment and infrastructure have been split between this grant and another in proportion to the workshops expected to each grant. 
  3. We had to redevelop the partnership element of this project, as the prior role of the partners was to select a venue, assist with lunch/refreshments, and recruit participants. Obviously, with an online program the first two things are irrelevant. The third is still relevant but has been awkward in an online environment. We have struggled to arrive at a final strategy for partnership on recruitment for an online-only program. At the same time, some of our partners are looking at changed circumstances post-COVID, and our workshop no longer fits their strategic priorities. We anticipate continuing changes to our collaborators.
  4. The nature of an online program is that anyone, anywhere can register for the program. This is a strength and a weakness, and we have done a lot of revisions to adapt to this. Because the laws we discuss are sometimes state specific, we had to decide if each online program was specific to a state, or if each workshop session would cover every state. We decided to go with the latter, so we could reach the greatest number of farmers possible, as each individual could then chose from among many workshop sessions. This required expanded legal research on a rushed schedule, such that we could speak to all 12 states rules by March 2021. 
  5. We also had to renegotiate the nature of our farmer-co-presenter program. With attention to the best practices of adult online education, we worked hard to make the online meeting element almost entirely interactive and skills-building based ratehr than "listen to a presentation" type. Integrating farmer presentations into the online meeting element conflicted with this best practice. At the same time, we were worried that the online platform wouldn't support the same interaction and Q &A time that our farmer co-presenters inspire in an in-person format (because a group of 50 people online simply can't do a great Q&A that feels inclusive and welcoming). Instead, we decided to pre-record videos of our farmer co-presetners discussing select aspects of their operation. These will be integrated into the pre-work aspect of hte program. Then, we're working with farmer co-presenters to facilitate small group activities in the online meeting session. 


Here is where we are at going forward. The online workshop curriculum has been piloted (funded under a different grant) and is very successful. Reviews have been terrific and farmers are finding great success in meeting the project objectives. We are also finding that we are able to develop a stronger relationship with each attendee We are launching our first workshop on March 2! We are able to take twice as many registrants for each workshop online as in-person, and we are expecting to meet or exceed our total participants over the entire course of this grant.

We have not updated the learning outcomes or project outcomes yet. Although we have strong data for the results we already collected, we will have to work on how to merge data across the old in-person workshop for 2020 and the new online workshop for 2021 so we can present a single set of data/learning outcomes that represent the entire project. The online workshop has allowed us to be more detailed in our evaluation because it's entirely online, and we can be more detailed in our assessment without encountering a big data entry barrier (as no one has to enter the data for an online evaluation!)

Project Activities

Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm
Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm
Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm
Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 Workshop field days
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.