Empowering Southern Sustainable Farmers with Proactive, Community-centered Farm Law Education, Resources, and Networks

Progress report for LS21-346

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $45,096.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipients: Farm Commons; Georgia Organics
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Eva Moss
Farm Commons
Co-Investigators:
Rachel Armstrong
Farm Commons
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Project Information

Abstract:

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 will change 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 Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm Workshop curriculum which sees 70% of farmers reducing legal risk through at least one action step taken within 3 months, with 4 more steps planned for a year’s time. (Citation 1) 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 (Farm Commons, Georgia Organics, and our farmer co-leaders) 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. Next, we build in mechanisms for farmer co-leaders 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 far more successful 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 complications, transportation issues, and/or family obligations. It also insulates the project from the risks of our current global pandemic. We also develop a print guide to assist book learners, which we call the Guide to Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm in Georgia. This guide provides tangible learning tools to support implementation of the 10 best practices for legal resilience. For example, it’s not enough to tell a producer to call their insurance agent with questions. A script and suggestions on how to respond if the insurance agent doesn’t deliver a sufficient answer is more helpful.

We don’t stop at education. 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. As to persistent barriers, issues of racial inequality is high on the list.

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.

Project Objectives:

Objectives:

  1. Host 2 Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm workshops, both held online. Each course will be held over a different 5-week period in Winter 2021-2022. 125 farmers total will attend the workshops.
  2. Host 2 workshop follow up sessions for farmers to share challenges in implementing their action plans and find support in early Winter 2022.
  3. Research, write, and distribute a guide to Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm in Georgia, given to all workshop participants and distributed online to an additional 75 farmers.

Short Term Outcomes:

  1. 200 farmers learn the 10 legal best management practices across 5 subjects including employment law, diversification, business structures, land matters, and liability/insurance. This is 100% of the 200 total famers this project reaches.
  2. 180 farmers gain 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 100% of the 125 farmers reached in the workshop plus 73% of those who access the print guide alone. Because it is harder to verify that those reading the print guide are actually doing the exercises and gaining the skills, we reduce the success rate to 73% based on past experience.
  3. 140 farmers become more legally resilient by successfully implementing at least 4 of the 10 legal best management practices. This is 80% of the 125 farmers reached in the workshop plus 53% of those who access the print guide alone. As above, because it is harder to verify that those reading the print guide have implemented their action plans, we reduce the success rate to 53% based on past experience.
  4. 126 farmers feel 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.
  5. 2 farmers assume leadership among peers on proactive resolution of legal issues by leading parts of the CYRLF workshops and follow up sessions.

Long Term Outcomes

  1. Farms with the most complex legal risk vulnerability (direct to consumer, organic, and agritourism-based operations) become stronger and more resilient.
  2. Sustainable farms approach risk management confidently, with legal background information and knowledge of the resources and opportunities available to them.
  3. 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.

Research

Involves research:
No
Materials and methods:

Please find details on each stage of this process below.

  1. Finalize workshop and guide content; schedule workshop and open registration; coordinate updates.

Farm Commons and Georgia Organics connect to solidify the workshop and guide content, based on current events, local concerns, and on the existing curricular framework. The project team will also meet to identify and plan recruitment of the farmer co-presenters. We will pick a date for the online workshops, set up event registration, and schedule for the project team to conduct regular updates as project moves forward.

2. Research and write legal education curricula and supporting materials for Georgia producers.

Prior to creating the curriculum, the research team at Farm Commons drafts internal, detailed memos on how sustainable farmers are impacted, legally, in terms of business structures, land purchasing and leasing, food safety, agritourism and adding value, and farm labor law in Georgia. These memos are the basis for the workshops and print guide. Then, we use the research memos to adapt our existing curriculum for the Georgia-specific workshops and to draft a print guide. The workshops and guide address the 10 essential risk management actions every farm should take. Although each step is presented in a context specific to Georgia to farmers, we are eager to list them for grant reviewers here in a non-state-specific format. This will help in visualizing how the guide and workshop are structured. The 10 essential legal risk management steps are as follows:

  • Create an organizing document that outlines solutions for the producer’s, partners’, and the operation’s needs, circumstances, and expectations.
  • Form an LLC or Corporation if the producer is willing to deal with additional paperwork obligations.
  • Secure liability insurance that covers the risks and activities involved in the operation.
  • Revise and update insured property annually.
  • Classify workers as employees, unless the producer is willing and able to do detailed legal research to align worker programs with a different classification.
  • Modify business plans to meet legal obligations for minimum wage, overtime, and workers’ compensation.
  • Research any applicable zoning codes to discover whether and which diversification strategies are allowed on the operation.
  • Meet regulatory obligations for providing prepared food to customers.
  • Have a thorough discussion with landlords/tenants and lenders that results in consensus and is written down.
  • Perform adequate due diligence on any land being utilized.
  1. Coordinate with farmer co-leaders

After the project team connects about criteria for a successful farmer co-leader, Georgia Organics recruits nominees to complete an application form. The project team then selects a final 2 farmer co-leaders from the nominees. Farmer co-leaders selected attend our training and watch 6 videos that explain the law and help the emerging co-leader reflect on their own experience. Then, we hold a follow-up conversation to build on those reflections: What has the individual farmer co-presenter learned or experienced, relative to each legal subject?

This entire process supports the farmer co-leader in crafting 4 videos that are delivered as part of the workshop. Farmer leaders generally choose to focus on discussing their strengths, how they gained them, their weaknesses, and anything they did or plan to do about those weaknesses. We also utilize our farmer co-leaders to support discussion and networking during the workshop. Thus, we train them in on the Thinkific platform (which hosts the online workshops) to facilitate discussion.  

  1. Assemble online course

The online workshop is held over 5 week period with each week consisting of 30 minutes of pre-work and a 120-minute, highly interactive online session. As part of the online sessions, each producer works towards a comprehensive individual action plan. The program is delivered through a Learning Management System (called Thinkific) that in easy to use while allowing for strong evaluation through assessing progress, issuing quizzes, and monitoring completion by individual students. Our online course is not a boring series of PowerPoints; we are dedicated to an online experience that also achieves networking and social interaction, using the flipped classroom model. Pre-work is for learning basic concepts, and our valuable time together is focused on skills acquisition and discussion of action steps.

This grant prioritizes education that is “capable of leading to the actions and benefits described.” Our curriculum and process takes this very seriously. Our 10 legal best practices above are carefully tuned to be things that can actually be done, and we provide what farmers need to make them happen through checklists, scripts, and model documents. Follow up sessions are focused on producers sharing their progress and seeking out advice from other farmers about the barriers they’re running into (racism included).

  1. Draft and finalize print guide to the 10 best practices for creating legal resilience on Georgia sustainable farms.

The print guide supports the workshop and serves as a stand-alone document for farmers unable to attend. The guide features the best practices, a brief summary of each, and the checklists, scripts, and model documents that support implementation. The shelf life of the print guide and online course is about 7 years- the law changes but core legal best management practices rarely will. The guide will identify the narrow and precise issues that are most subject to change including minimum wage and overtime rules, for example. This guide will be available for distribution after the workshop broadly by Georgia Organics and their partners.

  1. Do outreach on workshop

Georgia Organics recruits farmers to attend via their successful educational programming outreach. Farm Commons has facilitated nearly 2 dozen CYRLF workshops nationwide and has a solid baseline. Because the subject matter is universally applicable to farmers (the law affects everyone), meeting target attendance of 35 producers has not been difficult. The specific target audience is farmers who are growing organically and farmers who market direct to consumers. Generally, about 75% of attendees are female, with the majority operating diversified or direct to consumer. Traditional commodity style farmers find 60% of the curriculum relevant and are often 10% of the audience. The workshop helps promote acceptance of alternative farming practices as conventional farmers learn alternative practices are sound and defensible, legally.

Farm Commons provides template materials to Georgia Organics based on prior success drawing farmers to a farm law workshop. Georgia Organic’s staff time and expenses for printing, newsletter services, social media paid postings, and other outreach expenses are compensated with a $2,400 honorarium.

  1. Host workshops

The online workshops themselves are hosted through Thinkific, a platform that allows for easy, seamless organization of the workshop curricula including pre-work, weekly meetings, and supplemental resources. The platform also makes it very easy to send weekly reminders with links to relevant material. The project team can also identify which users have not logged in and who may need a reminder or an offer of support to successfully engage with the program. The platform offers call-in options and the opportunity to record the “live” meetings for distribution to those who cannot attend. We are also able to offer captioning for those who may need it. The curriculum on Thinkific allows for engaging discussion and networking between workshop participants as well.

All project team members will attend the online workshops. The Farm Commons staff will lead the legal curriculum, our farmer co-leaders will support discussion and activities, and the Georgia Organics representative will attend to help facilitate as well as to provide orientation to Georgia Organic’s role in supporting farmers.

  1. Convene Follow-Up Support Sessions

The follow-up support sessions are an opportunity for producers to bring their individual concerns and issues to the team for support. However, rather than offering exclusively one-on-one support, we are doing it in a group based environment. This is because many of the barriers farmers experience in resolving legal concerns benefit from the input of other farmers themselves. For example, someone may be having a hard time deciding on how to address renewal of a farmland lease. Other farmers are rich sources of ideas for different ways to structure or communicate about renewal provisions. Including other farmers in those discussions creates a more rich community of learning, as well. Follow up support sessions will be informally organized, and directed to the issues farmers bring to the table at the time. The project team will attend, and Georgia Organics’ team will be able to present further opportunities to connect with their resources going forward.

  1. Distribute Guide to Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm in Georgia

Throughout the second half of the first year and the entire second year, the project team will distribute the Guide to Cultivating Your Legally Resilient Farm in Georgia. The material will be hosted at the Farm Commons website. Georgia Organics will also have the opportunity to distribute the Guide through their website and outreach mechanisms. Further, each workshop attendee will receive a copy of the guide.

Before the guide is finalized, it will go through a review, proofreading, and formatting process as described in the “Timetable” section.

  1. Evaluate success of project and indications towards long term goals

Throughout the progress of the workshops, we will evaluate our success achieving the short-term goals below. Please see the “Evaluation Plan” for more details.

Participation Summary
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.