Guiding farmers to legal resilience

October 25, 2019

by Connie Hardy, program coordinator

FFED staff members Kendra Meyers, Emily Coll and I recently attended a workshop entitled “Guiding Farmers to Legal Resilience.” A Duluth-based organization called Farm Commons sponsored the workshop. Their mission is to help farmers understand the legal ins and outs of business structures, and matters involving land, liability and insurance and farm employment.

Farm Commons gets funding from USDA, North Central SARE, and a foundation called Echoing Green. This funding supports a series of workshops across the US. Our presenters impressed us because they knew some of the unique features of Iowa law that pertain to land ownership and leases. They also knew of ways that state initiatives sometimes conflict with local zoning codes in our state. Much of their Iowa information referenced Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.

Four women at workshop.
Kendra Meyers, Emily Coll and Connie Hardy of FFED attended the Farm Commons workshop. At right is Sarah Vaile, one of the presenters.

Our speakers were Sarah Vaile, staff attorney, and Eva Moss, education and outreach director for Farm Commons. Their workshop gave service providers a better understanding of farm-related law. And we learned about tools and resources we can use with our farmer clients. We want to help them make good decisions and avoid legal problems related to their farm operation in Iowa.

Real-life examples

Here are a few of the examples they gave:

Sam, a garlic farmer, planted $30,000 worth of seed on land he was renting. (Garlic is typically planted in the fall before the first hard freeze.) During the winter, the landowner announced he had sold the land to a developer who planned to begin building in the spring.

The lease didn’t specify who was responsible for Sam’s investment in next year’s crop. When this happens, state law determines the outcome. In the state where this took place, state law said the landowner was not responsible. (Iowa law protects Sam’s rights to his investment.)

Another example involved a woman (I’ll call her Maggie) who wanted to own a small farm where she could raise sheep and sell the milk. She knew a woman from whom she could rent land and buildings for this purpose. Maggie left her professional job in the city, made arrangements to purchase sheep and feed, and planned for needed improvements to fences to begin the sheep operation, only to find out that her friend went back on her word and would not rent the land to Maggie! Now what?

Farm Commons logo.

Maggie eventually found another tract of land to rent. This time, Maggie insisted on having a signed lease agreement between herself and the landowner BEFORE she proceeded with any further plans. As you can imagine, that lesson was very costly to Maggie.

An unfortunate fall

A third example involved liability. Evelyn, a dairy farmer, had a diversified farm operation that held a lot of opportunity for families in the nearby city to learn about agriculture. Her county extension agent encouraged her to host a farm open house on a lovely October weekend.

She hosted tours of the pasture, barns and gardens and offered snacks. On one tour, two young boys started fooling around while they were in the dairy barn and caused an older gentleman to fall into one of the stalls. As you might expect, the cow didn’t appreciate having company and kicked the man, who suffered considerable injury.

The man’s health insurance company tried to force Evelyn’s insurance company to cover the cost, stating that Evelyn was negligent. The insurance companies didn’t appreciate her lovely farm and graciousness in hosting these tours! Iowa law (and that of many states) says that Evelyn is indeed negligent if she acted less responsibly than other farmers in similar operations. 

I’m not sure how this ended for Evelyn, but it engendered a discussion about waivers that visitors could sign to hold the property owner harmless if someone is injured. Sarah and Eva said that waivers serve the purpose of discouraging the injured from suing the farmer or landowner, but they are not acceptable in court as a defense.

Cover of toolkit.

Resources to share

These are just a few of the examples we discussed throughout the day, but unfortunately they are common occurrences. Farm Commons has developed several helpful documents we can use and share with our clients to help all of us better understand the legalities of farming. Download the workshop handout, “12 Ways to Guide Farmers to Legal Resilience.”

Separate detailed handouts on the Farm Commons website include:

  1. Business structures
  2. Land matters
  3. Insurance
  4. Employee law
  5. Food safety
  6. Sales and contracts
  7. Agritourism

If this workshop sounds interesting to you, Farm Commons is offering it in webinar format! Register for the four-part series.