The Not-So-Simple Definition of “Agriculture Law”

Rincker Law Food & Ag Law, International Treaties and UN Organizations, Social Media and Technology 2 Comments

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I recently joined JD Supra where my documents can be found here.  Today, JD Supra featured my profile on its facebook page. I was asked what exactly agriculture law was from an editor in Florida where I did my best to answer her in limited space.  Since I oftentimes receive this question (lately even by a farm news reporter), I will expound on the definition of agriculture law here.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what Black’s Law Dictionary had to say.  Though it listed no definition for “agriculture law” per se, it defined “agriculture” as “[t]he science or art of cultivating soil, harvesting crops, and raising livestock.”  Black’s Law Dictionary 76 (8th ed. 1999).  Granted, this might be the traditional definition of production agriculture, but for those of us involved in the industry, we know that the definition of agriculture has much broader strokes than simply farming and ranching.  Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary did add that “agriculture” includes “in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products.”  Still, this definition in my mind fails to encapsulate the full breadth of the industry.

Prof. Susan Schneider at the University of Arkansas, School of Law, did an outstanding job discussing the complicated definition of “agriculture law” in the January 2009 American Agriculture Law Assocation‘s (“AALA”) Agriculture Law Update (a podcast on the subject is also available here and you can follow Prof. Schneider on Twitter here).  In her general definition, Prof. Schneider defined “agriculture law” as “the study of the network of laws and policies that apply to the production, marketing, and sale of agriculture products, i.e., the food we eat, the natural fibers we wear, and increasingly, the bio-fuels that run our vehicles.”  See Susan Schneider, What Is Agriculture Law?, Agriculture Law Update, Vol. 26, No. 1, Whole No. 302 (January 2009) at 1.

What makes agriculture law difficult to succinctly define is that instead of being subject-based like criminal law or contract law, it is industry based.  And, as you can see, there is a dispute on what exactly is included in the definition of this particular industry– agriculture. When evaluating agriculture’s contribution to our Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s (“USDA”) Economic Research Service (“ERS”) includes the following industries:  “farms, forestry, fishing, hunting, processed food, beverage, and tobacco products, textile and leather apparel, restaurants and drinking establishments.”  My definition of agriculture includes all of these industries and every segment within these industries.  Therefore, I define agriculture law as all the statutes, regulations, common law, judicial decisions, and international treaties that affect each of these various sectors of the agriculture industry. Not only is the breadth of the agriculture industry itself extremely broad, but there is incredible diversity within any one sub-industry.

Let’s use the beef industry as an example:  a small seedstock cattle producer in Indiana that raises primarily club show steers is very different than the commercial rancher in Colorado who grazes his cattle on state and federal lands.  The laws that affect the lives of these two cowmen are also different than the laws affecting a cattle feedyard in Western Kansas, an international meat packing plant in Wisconsin or the local grocery store in New York City who ultimately sells the consumer beef for purchase.

In her very thoughtful analysis, Prof. Schneider suggested in her article that “agriculture law” included the following cannons:

1.  Laws regulating agriculture production and the sale of agriculture commodities (e.g., federal farm programs, marketing orders, the Packers & Stockyards Act, Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, and Warehouse Act);

2.  Laws regulating food through either the USDA or the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) (e.g., food safety, food labeling, organic standards);

3.  Commercial laws including the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) (e.g., Article II on Sales, Article III on Negotiable Instruments, Article VII on Warehouse Reciepts, Bills of Lading and other Documents of Title, and Article IX on Secured Transactions), the Bankruptcy Code, and insurance law (e.g., crop insurance, farm indemnity liability insurance, livestock insurance);

4.  Governmental program promoting agriculture (e.g., USDA lending programs, Farm Credit System (“FCS”));

5.  Laws that establish and regulate business structures (e.g., corporations, agriculture cooperatives);

6.  Environmental and natural resource law (e.g., Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (please note that the U.S. is not a Signatory to the Kyoto Protocol));

7.  Laws that affect land tenure (e.g., real estate transactions, ranch leases) and ownership of agriculture production;

8.  Laws regulating animal husbandry and welfare (e.g., Animal Welfare Act);

9.  International trade in agriculture products (e.g., United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (“CISG”));

10.  Agriculture labor and employment law;

11.  Laws affecting food security, poverty (e.g., food stamps) and the “right to food“;

12.  Regulation of technology (e.g., biotechnology) and intellectual property rights (“IP” or “IPR”);

13.  Agriculture taxation and estate planning;

14.  Laws affecting biofuels (e.g., ethanol) and renewable energy on farmland (e.g., wind energy development); and,

15.  Laws affecting rural areas (e.g., rural economic development).

See Susan Schneider, What Is Agriculture Law?, Agriculture Law Update, Vol. 26, No. 1, Whole No. 302 (January 2009) at 3.

In addition this very expansive list, I would also add criminal law (e.g., criminal trespass tickets from the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) or Forest Service (“FS”) for an unauthorized livestock grazing on federal land), land use and zoning law, constitutional law and tort law (e.g., farm accidents).  In essence, agriculture law touches upon nearly every aspect of the law and regulates perhaps one of the most complex, diverse industries in the world.

So when people ask me “so what exactly is agriculture law?”  — I respond with “well, almost everything.”  The agriculture industry is affected by a myriad of applicable laws and regulations and in its simplest definition, “agriculture law” is the complex integration of these laws affecting the industry as a whole.

For more research on the variety of legal issues affecting agriculture law, I highly suggest visiting the National Agriculture Law Center‘s (“NALC”) Reading Rooms.  NALC has complied a wealth of information on many agriculture law topics ranging from AgriTourism and Checkoff Programs to Commodity Programs and Urbanization and Agriculture.  You can also visit the NALC and AALA blog here.

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