The Purpose of Being a Food Law Attorney

The Food Lawyer Blog

I consider myself to be a practical activist. I want to see people start to think about food, farming, and sustainability differently. I do that by giving legal advice to a new generation of energetic and eager men and women that are starting to grow food in a different way. These entrepreneurs are changing the way we think about food and the way we eat. I am drawn to these folks as clients because I know that in order for them to successfully create alternative food systems, they need to convert some of their zeal into a hard business edge. This is the only way to consolidate the changes they are bringing about. 

A food law attorney is instrumental in two ways. Agricultural law is indeed a special practice area requiring a distinct knowledge base. Unlike bankruptcy law or criminal law, which deal extensively in a single area of law, the legal tools of the food lawyer are scattered far and wide across many areas of law. A single client may require advice on trademark law, the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, and the standards of identity which mandate how products can be labeled and what they can be called. The ability to provide industry-specific guidance across the various legal disciplines is a requirement of my practice. 

New and beginning farmers, or even old-hats converting their operation from commodity production to get into the direct market, organic, or some other big-ag alternative, are often unfamiliar with just how highly regulated the food business can be.  Knowing how to exploit these advantages can mean the difference between profit and loss. 

Talking about these special legal benefits with small-scale farmers and food entrepreneurs is the part of my legal practice that is the most exciting. It is also what sets me apart from other lawyers out there. But in all honesty, it is not the part of my practice that has the greatest potential to change the way people produce, buy, and eat food.

As much as I enjoy helping farmers organize to exploit the legal advantages of farming, the real practical activism of my job results from work that is far more mundane. The leases, contracts, and loan agreements I draft are the real bricks and mortar of the food revolution. These boring documents will give the new food movement continuity and permanence. It is exactly like putting their enthusiasm down on paper so that it can be turned into lasting business relationships with local banks, neighborhood restaurants, institutional buyers like local public schools, and local consumers. 

My goal with this blog is to get my readers to realize that a farm is a sophisticated business. The people entering agriculture for the first time are full of enthusiasm. It is a wonderful thing to see, but bills do not get paid with sentiment, nor will the enthusiasm of the new kind of farmer alter the food system. 

The only way to bring about changes to our food system is to demonstrate the profitability and permanence of alternative forms of production. 

Small-scale farmers have to start thinking about strategically consolidating the gains they have made. It is time for them to gain some of the long-term goals of institutionalization, while at the same time enshrining their alternative production ethos into their business plans, contracts, and loan agreements.

Consider the chicken. It’s hip now for local zoning boards to change local regulations to allow for the backyard cultivation of chickens for personal use. I would call that a good start - again, it show the new enthusiasm people have for food. (The popularity of these zoning changes also demonstrates a huge untapped, and unsatisfied, demand out there for real food.) Ordinances however, can get overturned when enthusiasm wanes. 

Permanent change in the food system looks entirely different. A new small-scale poultry slaughter facility in that same town would present all new opportunities for long-term change. Hypothetically, a facility that employs 6 local residents, operates under a $500,000 loan from a local bank, and which purchases 30,000 chickens under contract annually from local, sustainable farmers is not going anywhere. Ever. Legal relationships and business investments make alternative profitable and permanent.

That is the kind of change I want to see. The cool kids should continue to grow the heirloom varietals and the heritage breeds, but creating the great product is only half the job. I put people together in the new food economy and help them enforce their mutual promises. I am happy to help work in the background, reviewing the loan agreements, drafting the poultry contracts, and forging the links of the new food economy one at a time. This is how new industries are made. It’s not glamorous, but these are indispensable, practical steps that need to be taken if things are ever going to change. 

-The Food Lawyer

You can read more at my Food Law Blog

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Views: 276

Tags: Food, Law

Comment by Dusty Bottoms on December 9, 2011 at 5:23pm

Jason,

Really happy to have your expertise here!  As a food lawyer practicing agricultural law I'm interested in your take on small farmers who want to sell raw milk.  Notwithstanding the various opinions and state by state laws, here's my question.  If a member of Farm Dreams farms in a state that allows raw milk to be sold as pet food as long as it's properly labeled, do you see any liability or legal risk for the farmer?  If so, could that be mitigated with an umbrella policy for the farm since they're operating within the state law?

Comment by Jason Foscolo on December 9, 2011 at 6:23pm

Dusty, 

Fantastic question, and an excellent topics for a second blog post. Government regulators are not easily fooled by contrivances like the one you described which are used to circumvent prohibitions against the sale of raw milk for human consumption. In the meantime, table your plans to label your raw milk product "pet food" until next Friday when I can have some more comprehensive guidance for you. In my next post, I will explain why that is probably the safest course of action in more detail. 

Comment by Jodie Westwood on December 10, 2011 at 2:18pm

Its wonderful to have you expertise involved in a site like this.  I have free range eggs - 2 dozen a day to start.  Had them sold to a health food store but then they had concerns about selling an unknown product.  They/I am clueless to selling fresh eggs - and my eggs are fresh!  Decided to donate them to a homeless cook kitchen who loves them!  But I would really like to be able to make some money for feed cost.

Comment by Happy on December 10, 2011 at 3:37pm

I am thrilled to have your expertise here!  I have so many questions but I will wait until you have a few more posts so that I can prioritze them.

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