Supporting Vermont’s farmers and fledgling attorneys through the Vermont Legal Food Hub
By: Sophia Kruszewski| Vermont Law School, Center for Agriculture and Food Systems’ Clinic Director & Assistant Professor of Law
December 10, 2020
Vermont is known for its vibrant local food culture and small-but-mighty farm economy. Home to 6,800 farms, Vermont leads the nation in maple syrup production and ranks among the top 10 states for certified organic farms (in terms of both acreage and number of farms) and for local food sales. In 2016 alone, sales from Vermont producers directly to consumers, retailers, institutions, and local distributors like food hubs totaled $250 million. Vermont’s farm and food businesses also directly employ over 64,000 Vermonters; food manufacturing is the second-largest manufacturing industry in the state. Clearly, Vermont’s local food sector is a strong driver of the state’s economy.
The picture is not entirely rosy, however. Even before Covid-19 exacerbated low milk prices, Vermont dairy farms were in crisis. The average age of Vermont farmers is just under 56 years old and over 30 percent are over 65, presaging the significant degree of farmland that will change hands in the coming years. Whether that land remains in agriculture depends not only on having the next generation of farmers ready to step in, but also on whether land prices offer a competitive option for the exiting farmer, while still being affordable for the incoming one.
The vast majority of farms in Vermont are small, family farms; the average Vermont farm is 175 acres, significantly smaller than the national average of 441 acres. Strikingly, 72 percent of Vermont farms bring in less than $25,000 in average annual sales; only 16 percent have $100,000 or more in sales. What’s more, the average net cash farm income is only $26,215, well below the national average of $43,053, making it unsurprising that many farmers work additional off-farm jobs for some portion of the year.
Recently proposed and enacted Vermont legislation recognizes and seeks to overcome some of the varied challenges the agriculture sector faces. Act 83, which became law in 2019, calls for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to lead in developing a report with recommendations to stabilize, diversify, and revitalize Vermont’s agriculture economy. (The report, presented to the legislature in early 2020, provides a comprehensive assessment of the need and opportunity by agricultural product, market, and issue.) Act 83 also established a legislative working group to explore how farmers can receive payments for the ecosystem benefits they produce on their farms. And a bill introduced in early 2020 would significantly expand the state’s purchasing of local food in schools and correctional facilities through numeric targets and reimbursements.
In addition to public policy, affordable legal services play an important role in sustaining and growing Vermont’s local food sector. Lawyers can assist with a wide range of farm business needs including: farm transfer and acquisition; business and estate succession planning; legal entity formation; drafting and reviewing contracts; advising on employee classification and compliance with labor laws; liability and risk management; and navigating the increasingly complex web of federal, state, and local regulations that apply to food and farm businesses. Indeed, farm and food clients share much in common with other clients seeking business and legal advice. Yet, many small-scale farmers and food entrepreneurs may be unfamiliar working with an attorney or unable to afford one, even when transactional legal counseling could significantly benefit their businesses. That’s why, in January 2020, Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food System launched the Vermont Legal Food Hub. This new program seeks to overcome some of these barriers and help bridge the gap between the agricultural and legal sectors. Not only does the Vermont Legal Food Hub offer free support to our state’s farmers and food producers, but also it can open new doors for VLS students and graduates.
A joint initiative between CAFS and Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), this innovative program connects farmers, food entrepreneurs, and food system organizations across the state with free legal services, building on a regional program that Dean Jennifer Rushlow started while head of Food & Farm at CLF. The first Legal Food Hub launched in 2014 in Massachusetts. Since then, Hubs have opened in Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont, connecting over 500 participants across the region with free legal support and leveraging over $3M in pro bono assistance. To be eligible for free assistance, applicants must meet certain income eligibility requirements and go through an intake process, after which they are connected with a skilled attorney who practices in that area of the law.
Not only does this program provide a much needed service, increasing access to legal assistance for low-income food and farm businesses, but also it is providing unique opportunities for VLS students and alumni to build food and agriculture law practices. The Legal Food Hub now has over 160 firms in its regional network of volunteer attorneys; 20 of those are in Vermont, including CAFS’ Food & Agriculture Clinic, and including many VLS alumni.
CAFS operates the Vermont Hub, and since we launched in January 2020, we have placed over twenty cases with participating law firms. Farmers have comprised 60% of our placements, nonprofits 30%, and food entrepreneurs 10%. Across all categories of participants, assistance selecting and forming a legal entity is by far the most commonly identified legal need, accounting for over 70% of all requests. Other common legal issues that have come in through the Hub relate to land use and real estate, contracts, intellectual property, and employment and labor.
While we have placed many of these cases with our ever-growing network of volunteer attorneys, we also place some cases in CAFS’ Food and Agriculture Clinic, providing an opportunity for students to work with local food clients on a range of transactional and regulatory matters. For example, we worked with a food hub navigating food safety regulations and licenses at the state and federal level. We reviewed a contract agreement for a farmers’ association that rents out conservation equipment so farmers can plant seeds with minimal disturbance to the soil. We provided consultation on a trademark matter for a nonprofit that works to increase access to and availability of local food through marketing, aggregation, and distribution. And students enrolled in the Spring Food and Agriculture Clinic will have the opportunity to work with a group of Vermont processors exploring options for establishing a collaborative business model that enables them to share processing and marketing infrastructure.
Not only do these experiences enable students to build their issue-spotting, legal reasoning, client counseling, and other legal and professional skills, but also they provide invaluable opportunities to build relationships within the community. As we see it, providing direct legal services complements our Clinic’s other more policy-oriented work. Not only do we get to give back to those who work tirelessly to feed us, but also we can identify areas of the law where additional legal resources or policy solutions are needed, fueling our work as advocates for the community and world.