Legally Protecting Your Farm: Part One

As a farmer, there are no shortage of issues we face that can derail our livelihood and best made plans: Death, disease, in-climate weather, drought, flood, pests, cash flow snafus and equipment breakdowns are but just a few of the issues we face which can set us back financially or even put us out of business. Farming is hard work and there is a ton of risk involved, so as any prudent business person would do we need to minimize our risks anytime we can.

One of the often overlooked areas that can rack up expenses faster than anything else are legal fees. We live in a litigation happy society, and also in a society where unjustified government interference runs rampant amongst small scale food producers. There are no shortage of stories where honest, hard working, law abiding farmers are being harassed for simply raising and selling nutrient dense food. One infraction from a local, state or federal office could set you on a course of financial disaster – either thru shutting your business down or from legal fees that can easily exceed $250 an hour from a decent attorney (which is considered cheap nowadays). While our family has a lifestyle I wouldn’t trade for anything, I don’t know about you but we are not getting rich from the farm. And the thought of having to pay an attorney hundreds of dollars an hour is not only sickening, but the last time I looked in my checkbook it wasn’t even an option! Without some proactive measures, I would be out of business should I find it necessary to hire legal representation to protect my farm and hence my livelihood.

So what are we to do in order to protect ourselves and minimize our risk? A growing trend in many areas (not just farming) is to join a cooperative legal defense fund where members pay into a pool that is then used to defend “clients” in the case of litigation within that cooperatives legal niche. Last year, we joined two such organizations to protect ourselves, one for farming and one for homeschooling families (link to the HSLDA).

The single greatest investment we’ve made to date to protect our farm from a legal standpoint was to join with the Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF). The purpose of the FTCLDF is to defend it’s members from government entities when they have done nothing wrong. In a nutshell, should a member farm be approached and accosted or be formally accused of illegal wrongdoings by a government body – be it local, state, or federal – the FTCLDF will come to your legal aide once they have assessed that you in fact have done nothing wrong. From the FTCLDF website:

“FTCLDF levels the playing field, making it more difficult for the government to win wars of attrition that drag farmers through administrative and judicial hearings; membership enables members to spend their resources on farming instead of lawyers.”

However, the member benefits do not stop there. FTCLDF also does proactive work and helps to resolve other issues not related to government interference:

“In addition to litigation, FTCLDF’s work includes advising on state legislation, working at the administrative level on matters before federal and state governments, and day-to-day member services. Member services have included work on the following: zoning, complaints from neighbor(s), on-farm poultry processing, disputes with farmers market managers, and slaughterhouse regulations.”

Moreover, the FTCLDF membership also provides you the following additional benefits:

  • Unlimited consultation with attorneys on matters within its mission statement;
  • Any contractual documents FTCLDF provides, e.g., herdshare contracts, buyers club agreements, etc.;
  • Unlimited consultation with former FTCLDF board member and dairy farmer, Tim Wightman, on matters related to farm operations;
  • Toll-free emergency hotline to speak with an attorney if there is a surprise visit or inspection from a government agency;
  • The possibility of legal representation on matters that are within FTCLDF’s mission statement at no additional cost.

Now you are probably thinking and wondering: “That sounds great. How much does all of this legal help cost?”. Sounds expensive, right? As it turns out, most all of these cooperative legal organizations are very reasonable and an annual membership with the FTCLDF will run you a whopping $125 (same for the HSLDA). That’s it. It’s stupid cheap and about the simplest “no-brainer” decision you can make if you are involved in the production of food with direct consumer sales. Seriously, stop and think about this for a moment: $125 might get you a ½ hour consultation with some attorney who kind-of, sort-of, maybe knows how to deal with a situation that fits within the FTCLDF’s mission statement.

When you consider the financial ramifications, it’s hard to justify an argument against joining the FTCLDF. An inexpensive legal situation could easily run you $2000-$5000. And God forbid you end up in a long, drawn out legal battle with a government agency who is funded by tax dollars and accountable to no one for its actions or budget. A gung-ho employee of the state intent on making an example out of you can easily drag things out to a point where you simply can’t afford to fight anymore. How good does that $125 investment look now? And by the way, that $125 might be a tax deductible contribution on your income taxes (please seek clarification on that with a licensed CPA in your state).

We waited until 2013 to join the FTCLDF even though I knew about it for years. It always came down to the money, which looking back is simply ridiculous. Fortunately, we have pretty good laws for small farms in Indiana and never had any issue to require legal aide. I know and understand more than most how tight funds can be for small farmers, I really do. But given the amount of risk we as farmers take everyday, it makes sense for us to protect ourselves any way we can. Joining the FTCLDF does just that, for under 35 cents per day. You simply can’t afford not to join, and in this day and age we small farmers need every advantage we can get.

To learn more about the FTCLDF, please visit their website:

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