Farmers are experts on a lot of agrarian topics. But when it comes to legal matters, navigating the nitty gritty of regulations and contracts might not be where a farmer feels most at home.
This is where a project run by the Conservation Law Foundation comes in. The nonprofit organization runs several “legal food hubs” in New England that link farmers and food business owners with free legal assistance to help them handle any legal matters they might encounter while running their small business.
This month, the arm of the legal food hub based in Portland reached its 100-case milestone since the project expanded to Maine in late 2015, a milestone that Maine Legal Food Hub coordinator Phelps Turner said demonstrates a need for this type of pro-bono legal assistance for those in the farming and local food realms.
“As encouraging as [the milestone] is, I think it represents the tip of the iceberg in this area for the great need for legal services of farmers and food entrepreneurs who are just trying to run their small businesses and maybe come across a legal challenge that they can’t otherwise afford to address,” Turner said.
Farmer Michael Hayden of Folklore Farm in Cherryfield was inclined to just write a land-ownership contract on the back of a cereal box when he was looking to layout the terms for an agreement that would allow him to rent with the intention of owning the land he is farming. Paying the $500 or so dollars to have a lawyer make sure all the “T’s” were crossed and the “I’s” were dotted just didn’t seem worth it when his yearly rent wasn’t much more than the price of an attorney.
But after some friends urged him to get an attorney to make sure everything was done correctly, Hayden discovered the Maine Legal Food Hub, which put him in touch with a Portland-based lawyer who would help facilitate the contract process for free. Hayden is still in the midst of settling on the contract, but knowing the process is done correctly is worth the wait he said, instead of risking doing it all on his own.
“I would have just figured it out, and it would probably be done by now,” Hayden said. “But there would be a slight chance that I could lose it all because I didn’t do it legally enough.”
“Just figuring it out” is the mentality that many small business owners have — especially farmers and food producers — when it comes to legal matters, Phelps said, but it’s a mentality that could cost them far more than legal fees in the long run.
“This happens in all sorts of cases, where people who face either small claims or bigger claims, go without legal assistance because they can’t afford it and they pay an even higher price because they didn’t necessarily have the skills of a lawyer to either make the case go away or come to a compromised resolution that’s better than a total loss in the case,” Turner said.
The Conservation Law Foundation is a New England-based environmental advocacy group that has been around since the 1960s. In that time they have created a strong network of attorneys in the region who specialize in a range of legal issues that farmers and food producers might face, Turner said.
Real estate matters, like the contract that Hayden is dealing with, is a common legal area where farmers might need the assistance of a lawyer. But land and property purchasing is only one area where legal expertise is helpful. When forming a farm or a food business, an attorney specializing in business law can help a business owner decide what structure would be the best for their situation, whether it be a cooperative model, a limited liability company or a sole proprietorship. Attorneys can also help farmers with intellectual property issues such as copyright or trademarks, as well as navigating the realm of employment regulations.
Since farming isn’t necessarily a field where business owners have excess revenue to cover high legal costs, the free legal services that the Legal Food Hubs can find are welcomed, Hayden said.
Turner said lawyers are often eager to give back to their community through offering their expertise for free, and the food-centered nature of the Maine Legal Food Hub appeals to local attorneys because of Maine’s agriculturally rich history.
“I think […] in the legal field there is always an interest on the part of attorneys to give back to their communities and this program, especially in Maine which is quite an agricultural state, provides an opportunity for attorneys who are experts in theses field to give back to their communities and to leverage their experience in ways that can really make a difference,” Turner said.
Reaching the 100-case milestone in two years is a big achievement, Turner said, but the Maine Legal Food Hub is eager to help more farmers and food producers because the need in Maine is high.
“Food and farming is such a big part of the economy in Maine,” Turner said. “[Legal] issues are important, but they are often pushed to the side because there are so many other pressing things on the farm or in the food business.”