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July 2014 Archive for Janzen Ag Law Blog

RSS By: Todd Janzen, AgWeb.com

Janzen Ag Law is a blog written by Todd Janzen, former Kansas farmer now practicing attorney in Indiana. Topics include all types of legal questions facing modern farmers and agribusinesses, including contracts, environmental regulations, nuisance, big data and privacy concerns, as well as other issues. His email is tjanzen@psrb.com. He tweets from @JanzenLaw. His regular blog columns can also be found at JanzenAgLaw.com.

It's Time for Real Property Law to Join the 21st Century

Jul 31, 2014

I handle a number real estate transactions each year.  It is not uncommon to find an error in the property description located in a deed.  Often somewhere in the chain of title, someone made a typo which was then passed on from deed to deed to deed.  Attorneys call such mistakes "scrivener's errors."   These errors still occur today because the way property is described in deeds and other real estate documents has not changed much in past two centuries. Witnessing how much technology has improved farming in the past decade has made me wonder--why isn't the same technology being used to improve how we describe property boundaries?  

Real estate is described in most deeds using "metes and bounds," an old English system inherited by the thirteen colonies and later by other states joining the union. This method for describing property boundaries uses directions, bearings, and monuments.  Here is a basic example:  Begin at the center of Highway 50 in the southwest corner of Washington Township, Section 17, then face due east, then move a distance of 100 feet, then face due north and move a distance of 50 feet, etc. Eventually, you end up back where you started and have traced a boundary line around a property. Surveyors do the same but plot these descriptions on paper surveys.

Almost no property is a perfect rectangle with 90 degree corners or perfectly straight borders, meaning it is almost impossible for any untrained person to trace the boundaries of property without hiring an expert surveyor.  As a result, surveying is an entire industry developed to interpret the legal descriptions in deeds. Likewise, property purchasers buy "title insurance" to protect themselves in case their property contains a scrivener's error or other defect.  The title and survey industries exist to address the shortcomings of property law.


This 200+ year old system for describing property also creates a fair amount of litigation.  Since property owners can't always determine for themselves exactly where their property boundaries are, they often (inadvertently) construct fences, buildings, and other improvements that encroach onto neighboring property.  Encroachments are not uncommon to find when reviewing surveys for commercial, residential, or industrial property.


Technology now provides a better, more accurate way of surveying and describing property. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can revolutionize the way we describe property boundaries in the United States. Farmers plant half-mile long rows of corn using GPS technology that are perfectly straight, down to the inch. There is no reason similar technology is not used to define property boundaries, rather than the common law feudal method used today.  GPS coordinates would be a very simple way of describing property boundaries. And anyone with a smart phone could easily survey their own property, plot out the correct place for a fence, etc.  


Property law has always been slow to change.  (We still refer to people who lease their property as "landlords" even though most landlords are not English "lords.")  But there comes a time when "that's the way we've always done it" is no longer a good reason.  It's time to hit reboot on how we describe real property in this country.  It's time for lawyers and surveyors to embrace GPS technology just like farmers already have.  

Book Review: The John Deere Way

Jul 29, 2014

 My last stop before heading to the lake for summer vacation was to the local half-price bookstore.  I was delighted when I found a previously-owned copy of The John Deere Way by David Magee, a book that promised to dive into the corporate culture of one of America's oldest corporations, Deere & Company. This book is a few years old already, but for the most part the topics are still relevant today.  Here is my book review.

The author covers some interesting topics. Of course, the book discusses John Deere's original steel plow and how it revolutionized farming the Great Plains' prairie soils.  There are also some less well known stories about the history of the company, including why Deere decided to move into manufacturing lawn and garden tractors--to satisfy a growing suburban population that still wanted John Deere products. More recently, this same story line evolved when Deere decided to begin selling lawn tractors at Home Depot, marking the first time Deere sold equipment outside of its dealerships since 1837.  The book also covers many non-agricultural ventures, such as Deere's brief entry into and exit from the snowmobile business in the 1970s as well as the more sustained production of the Gator series of vehicles.
The book focuses on four aspects that define Deere & Company's corporate culture:  quality, innovation, integrity and commitment. Since 1837, Deere has only had slightly more than a handful of leaders, each of them stuck by these values when making decisions that impacted farmers, dealers, and Deere employees. There were times in Deere's history when the company strayed from its agricultural roots, and the results were not always good.  One of the interesting examples described was John Deere Credit's foray into providing financing for the RV industry. The division learned the hard way that financing RVs is different than combines, since the industry lacked the same dealer network that knew their customers and, importantly, could track down a vehicle when repossession became necessary.
But the book falls short to those who grew up on a 4020.  It chooses to focus on how Deere maximized shareholder returns on Wall Street instead of how John Deere earned the trust and loyalty of thousands of farmers. The pivotal events in John Deere's history are only briefly addressed: the decision to branch into tractor manufacturing by purchasing the Waterloo Boy factory in Waterloo, Iowa in 1918; why Deere decided not to repossess thousands of tractors in the Great Depression in the 1930s when farmers could not pay their bills; and how the New Generation of four and six cylinder tractors in the 1960s made John Deere the largest agricultural equipment manufacturer in the world. These stories are given a few pages in the book, but to me, how and why Deere leadership made these decisions is the reason behind the company's long term success. These turning points deserved more credit than was given in the book.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to John Deere fans.  If you aren't lucky enough to find it a local used bookstore like me, you can purchase on Amazon.com:  The John Deere Way.
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