For these pro bono lawyers, “Know your farmer” takes on new meaning

For these pro bono lawyers, “Know your farmer” takes on new meaning

Since 2014, the Legal Food Hub has handled more than 315 cases pro bono—that's about $2 million worth of legal work, had it been billed.

Ryan Voiland did something truly amazing this spring. He planted blueberries.

True—you basically dig a hole and plop the plant in. But it takes years for them to produce berries. “You can’t plant a long-term crop like fruit if you’re not going to be there long-term,” Voiland says, standing at the edge of a 10-acre field now dotted with about four-and-a-half acres of tiny blueberry bushes.

But now he expects to be. Thanks to a first-of-its-kind service called the Legal Food Hub, there’s a better chance that Voiland’s Red Fire Farm, with some 200 acres of cropland and two farm stores in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, will be around to sell those blueberries.

The Legal Food Hub, now operating in four New England states, is a clearing house, and essentially a matchmaking service, that provides free legal assistance to qualifying farmers, food entrepreneurs, and organizations that support them. In doing that, it clears away some of the problems that typically trip up small farmers and food businesses that operate on microscopic margins in circumstances that may hinge more on uncontrollable factors like weather than on having an air-tight business plan.

Farmers in New England in particular, where farms are small and land is expensive, face extraordinary pressure from non-agricultural land developers dangling big paydays. Often farmers are one bill—legal or otherwise—away from losing it all.

In Voiland’s case the legal assistance was for complex land acquisitions that included state purchase of development rights, land trusts, bridge loans, delays, a balky seller, and a whole lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross—made more complicated by financial setbacks due to a drought in 2016.

The Food Hub paired him with Rich Cavanaugh, an attorney with expertise in land and real estate issues, a fondness for the local food movement, and a willingness to do pro bono work—at least some of the time.

“It’s great to be a foot soldier in the local food movement. And that’s how I see this—as being a way to contribute,” says Cavanaugh, who helped Voiland purchase two fields in Granby, Massachusetts.

“Rich has been great—he really understands the deeper issues that go along with land preservation and farming,” Voiland says. “It’s wonderful to have someone who has that breadth of understanding.”

That’s no fluke. The Legal Food Hub, which was started and is run by a well-known New England environmental advocacy organization called the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), takes great pains to carefully pair clients and attorneys.

Jennifer Rushlow, the senior attorney at CLF who came up with the Food Hub idea and is now CLF’s director of farm and food, says the factors they evaluate include: the nature of the legal issue, location, the personality of the farmer or business owner, and what kind of lawyer he or she might work best with. Then she makes a targeted call.

So far, that’s worked. “My own sense is the fact that the program has grown so organically and run so smoothly since it started is indicative of the fact that there was a need for this,” she says.

Many farmers, Rushlow says, are not breaking even—let alone making a profit. “Those are not businesses that can afford to make big legal mistakes.”

In the four years since the service was rolled out in Massachusetts (followed by Maine about a year later, Rhode Island in fall of 2016, and in the last few months, Connecticut), the Hub has handled more than 315 cases through some 150 law firms. Rushlow estimates that’s about $2 million worth of legal work, had it been billed.

It took about nine months of research and outreach to develop a model and get attorneys lined up. Among the income guidelines: the net annual income of the business can't exceed $30,000 and household income can't exceed 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

Finding attorneys expert in food safety turned out to be a problem, so Rushlow had to line up lawyers in Washington, D.C. and New York. The Hub provides training to lawyers on these and other food issues though workshops, webinars, and written guides. And it helps lawyers get a better feel for farmers, a notoriously ornery, do-it-yourself bunch that views spending money on legal services as an expense they’d rather avoid.

“Particularly farmers prefer to do things on their own many times,” she says. “It’s expensive to talk to lawyers. I think there’s a reputation that lawyers are acrimonious and can just kind of make things more contentious than they need to be.”

To get the word out, the Hub used anything it could think of, from simple tables at farmers’ markets to notifying organizations such as state agriculture departments, farm organizations, land use groups, food incubators, and small business assistance organizations that it was open for business.

For many, the Food Hub’s services have been nothing short of lifelines.

Cassandria Campbell isn’t sure the company she and her partner Jackson Renshaw founded in Boston in 2015 would still be in business without the Food Hub.

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