Legal Ease: Ag in the Courtroom

April 27, 2013 09:15 AM

By John Dillard

Immersing yourself in the production and management demands of the farm leaves little time to monitor what is happening in the legal arena. While simmering on the back burner, legal issues play an increasingly important role in American agriculture and will influence how farmers and ranchers meet the daunting challenge of feeding a growing population.

I am familiar with this challenge. I grew up on a beef cattle farm in Virginia that my parents still operate. When the time came for me to move off the farm, my interests never strayed far. After studying agriculture in college and working in the agri-business sector for a few years, I recognized the substantial influence that legal matters have on the entire agricultural industry. I chose a career in law to do my part to advocate on behalf of agriculture.

A legal decision can set a lasting precedent that binds farmers

Hurtful versus helpful. Even though a lawsuit consists of a conflict between two sides, the resulting legal decision can set a lasting precedent that binds farmers on a state or national basis. Legal precedents can be leveraged by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state agencies and environmental groups to force you to change the way you do business. On the other hand, helpful legal precedents can be used as a shield against powerful agencies and groups that take offense with your operation.

It is important to understand that legal decisions affecting agriculture are often made by those with little familiarity with farming. Only 16% of Americans live in rural areas; thus, an overwhelming majority of Americans are not up close and personal with the industry. As the general public becomes separated from its agricultural forefathers, there is less understanding of modern agriculture and its role in ensuring domestic and global food security. While the urban population universally agrees that it should have access to the latest advancements in medicine or electronic gadgetry, many well-intentioned but often misinformed individuals think that agricultural technology and production practices should revert to what was in place in the 1950s.

The need to know. Basic legal literacy is necessary to stay afloat in an increasingly competitive and sophisticated market. Legal matters ranging from nuisance odors, water rights, biotech seed and property rights play a significant factor in a producer’s business decisions. Compliance with environmental standards and EPA’s ever-moving goalpost is necessary to avoid expensive penalties, bankruptcy and even jail. Understanding the basics of pesticide drift liability can improve neighborly relations and keep you out of the courtroom.

Agriculture, as you know, is a broad, interconnected industry. As such, legal decisions that affect one segment of agriculture often ripple to other sectors. For example, EPA’s actions against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations substantially influence corn and soybean farmers, too. In turn, legal decisions related to ethanol and the Renewable Fuels Standard affect livestock producers’ bottom line. Lawsuits involving EPA’s authority to enforce a Total Maximum Daily Load in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will affect the Heartland when EPA sets its sights on its prime target—the Mississippi River watershed.

I will use this column to explain, in plain English, some of the legal issues and court decisions that affect farmers and ranchers. I look forward to your feedback and suggestions for future topics. Please drop me an e-mail at

John Dillard is an associate attorney with OFW Law, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that serves agricultural clients before federal and state courts, EPA, FDA, USDA and OSHA. Contact him at Check out his blog at This column is not a substitute for legal advice. 

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