From the same starting point, it’s a five-minute drive north beyond the river to the open-air cow barn and the neat rows of organic vegetables at Luna Bleu Farm, where Suzanne Long and Tim Sanford work a small, diversified farm that includes grass-fed beef and free-range chickens.
The couple sells produce and meat to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shareholders, local restaurants, and the South Royalton Cooperative Market, among other places, and at the Norwich Farmers Market, where Long has been on the board of directors for close to a decade. After a discouragingly wet summer that forced them to plow under several ruined crops, Long and Sanford have put the ground to bed and are in winter mode, supplying the winter market with harvests from their greenhouse and freezer.
Lawyers- and advocates-in-training at Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) don’t have to go far to observe the daily hard work of producing environmentally sustainable food. In fact, twenty-two small farms and orchards operate within a ten-mile radius of the law school’s central building, Debevoise Hall. For students intent on improving the nation’s current body of food law—which for decades has been geared toward conventional, commoditized, industrial-scale production—this is an incredibly fertile place. It’s a place where students can get their hands dirty in an active farming region in a state known for its progressive laws and ideas.
To help transform the food system into one that is resilient and sustainable, advocates must go beyond simply keeping up with the new regulations coming out of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Growing and distributing food that is good for people and the planet will require new markets, innovative business models, and new rules governing everything from land use and water rights to food labeling and pesticides. “We want to know what is happening on the ground,” says Laurie Ristino, CAFS’s director, “We want to bring the law alive.”
Until recently, agricultural law was taught in law schools in the Midwest and Plains states as a conventional specialty. Over the last handful of years, though, a few dedicated legal centers around the country have sprung up around the concept of “food law.” The new area of study integrates the legal aspects of agriculture with topics as diverse as food safety, nutrition, and animal welfare. The subject also encompasses the environmental impacts of food production, including climate change.
VLS celebrated the opening of CAFS in October 2010 under the umbrella of its nationally renowned Environmental Law Center. It joined existing centers at Harvard Law School and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. An institute with a similar focus opened in 2013 at the University of California in Los Angeles. Among them all, the Vermont center is uniquely located to focus on a crucial growing part of the national food system: small and mid-size farms, processing facilities, and retailers. Laws and policies at the national and state levels affect them differently than they do the large industrial farms that still feed most Americans. Smaller farms and businesses, like those that dot the landscape in central Vermont, have a smaller environmental footprint and are hotbeds of new ideas. On the processing side, as well, there are creative food partnerships to explore around South Royalton and beyond.
Emily Laine ’15, a member of the law school’s student-run Food and Agriculture Law Society, says the most mind-expanding outing with the group so far has been to the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield. The 4,000-square-foot Mad River facility is equipped for a wide range of food processing and is USDA-certified for butchering and packaging meat, a unique designation for its size. By design, the building is flexible, allowing for intermittent or full-time use by small-scale producers. The Hub currently hosts companies that make commercially sold salumi, yak meat, and raw dog food. In addition to providing opportunities for collaboration among the users, the facility also provides small business planning support and, as of last October, a shared delivery truck. “I like to see things like that, that are win-win,” says Laine, who also co-produces Food Talk Radio, a monthly campus podcast on sustainable food issues. The programs are available on iTunes.
Vermont Law students have the chance to see how the shared-facility-and-resource model works on a larger scale, too. The nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy operates the Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC), a 15,000-square-foot food processing facility in Hardwick. The facility is licensed to house any kind of food production that does not require the handling of meat or dairy products. Among the roughly 40 VFVC users are small-scale makers of yam salsas, kale chips, sauerkraut, kombucha, and pretzels.
The oldest of the micro-business hubs, Burlington’s Intervale Center, began leasing a small amount of land along the Winooski River on the north side of the city in 1990. Its goal was to reduce start-up costs for small farmers by making fields, greenhouse space, and equipment all available for rent.
Nearly 25 years later, Intervale is leasing 135 acres to eleven different farms. The farmers are assisted by a group website that supports online ordering and direct delivery to local customers. The Intervale Center has faced a variety of legal and regulatory challenges during its start-up and growth over the years. To the CAFS staff, the organization is just one of Vermont’s many valuable case studies in sustainable agriculture.
“It’s live experimenting in the new food movement,” Ristino says. “A lot of it is happening here.”
Farmers with Law Degrees?
Not surprisingly, at least a few Vermont Law School graduates began thinking about embarking on farming careers because of their knowledge of the law, and did so years before he current “food law” concept blossomed. Two of them made small-scale organic dairying profitable by developing sophisticated on-farm processing operations.
In this, John Putnam ’83 and Amy Huyffer ’00 are bucking a statewide trend towards herd consolidation that began in the 1950s. By the start of the 21st century, the number of farms operating in Vermont had plummeted from 10,000 to 1,000, even as the total number of cows in the state’s dairy herd remained roughly the same.
Putnam and Huyffer are farmers, but also the kind of dogged and creative entrepreneurs that staff and students with CAFS hope to support and foster.
John Putnam and his wife Janine (also an ‘83 graduate of VLS) bought Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret not long after graduation. At first, dairy farming was a part-time endeavor that came second to child-rearing and John’s corporate law practice. When the family got into the business full-time in the late 1990s, the Putnams quickly realized that even the economics of selling higher-priced organic milk wholesale were not favorable to the farmer.
So they went on a quest. The couple scoured the French Alps for the right microbes and a cheese maker willing to teach them the craft. The result was Farmstead Tarentaise, their high-end, award-winning alpine cheese that has grown so popular that it’s now made both at Thistle Hill and at an affiliated farm in nearby Reading.
Huyffer started Strafford Organic Creamery with her husband Earl Ransom on the dairy farm in Strafford where he grew up (see “Organic,” page 28). Reaching the same conclusion as the Putnams, Huyffer and Ransom began by buying up second-hand equipment and building a creamery next to their milking parlor. Today the company is well known regionally for its glass-bottled organic milk and cream and delectable pints of small-batch premium ice cream.
Both Putnam and Huyffer have found that a law degree comes in handy. “It’s never a bad idea to be able to read a contract or to write one,” Huyffer says.
Putnam believes his legal background made it easier to wade through the complex process of becoming and staying certified to process milk. “If somebody throws a regulation in my face, I’m not the least bit intimidated,” Putnam says.
But going from law books to muck boots is certainly not a common path. Putnam doubts many farmers would ever seek out a law or master’s degree. They generally don’t have the available time or money. And it is the uncommon law school student who wants to live according to the relentless schedule of a family farm. But farming on the ground is only one area of the food system. CAFS can provide valuable guidance, faculty expertise, and student assistance for farmers or value-added producers who are just starting. In addition to helping to create a food and agriculture certificate for the online Master’s in Environmental Law and Policy (MELP), CAFS is working with fellows and students to produce a range of basic legal documents and make them available online. To pick one example: Access to arable land is one of the biggest challenges for would-be farmers, says Laurie Beyranevand ’03, CAFS’s associate director. Often creative leasing or long-term payment arrangements are farmers’ only options. CAFS plans to put together a suite of model land tenure tools that could save farmers time and money and educate them in the process.
In the same vein, most local farmers markets and multi-farm CSA programs operate without any kind of formal governance structure. That vacuum exposes the participants in the markets and CSA’s to unnecessary liability, Beyranevand says. CAFS wants to develop model documents for incorporation and governance that both types of partnerships could use as templates. For the vast majority of farmers and food producers, especially those without law degrees, such aids would certainly be useful, Putnam says.
Although the tapestry of a sustainable food system relies primarily on individuals who invest their time, money, and labor into farming and food production, it is increasingly clear that lawyers and advocates will be needed to keep the fabric strong.
“How you get there is one strand at a time,” Putnam says. “The more help you have the better it will be.”
Seeding Farm Policy
Policymakers in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals around the country make decisions every session that affect small farmers and food producers for good or ill. Sustainable agriculture advocates who are trained in the law can help by proposing changes to legislation and acting as watchdogs when new laws and regulations are implemented.
Even laws approved with the best of intentions can lead to a host of unintended consequences. Such seems to be the case with the Food Safety Modernization Act. Signed by President Obama almost three years ago, the law is arguably the most sweeping reform to the federal government’s oversight of food production since the Progressive Era. The new statute empowers the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a preventative rather than a reactive approach to the contamination of fruits and vegetables by viruses and bacteria. It directs the agency to develop and enforce scientifically based standards for safe harvesting and processing. It also requires both growers and producers to develop more rigorous monitoring systems and response plans if contamination occurs.
For farmers especially, this means a new thicket of regulations. Previously, the FDA stayed out of the growing side of the equation. “This is the first time where we are seeing the FDA inserting itself in that part of the
As written, the law contains specific provisions that exempt farms with less than $500,000 in sales from some of the more onerous, and expensive, requirements. But draft rules that the agency released last year threw that deal into question. The cost of com- plying with the proposed regulations could consume as much as half of a small farm’s thin profit margin.
As it stands, “some of its requirements may in fact crush small producers,” Ristino says. “The challenge now is to press for tweaks that don’t undermine the law’s intent.” For her, the central question is: “How do you have a safe system and still allow good things to happen?”
Students in one of Beyranevand’s courses wrote comments on the FDA rules, pointing out clarifications and changes that would lessen the burden on small farmers and producers. For example, a small, diversified farm may sell a variety of products that together equal more than $500,000. Currently, that farm wouldn’t qualify for the exemption even if the fruit and vegetable portion of their sales fell under the cut-off amount.
To pick another example that hits close to home in Vermont, the proposed FDA regulations set far more stringent limits on the use of manure and compost as fertilizers than what is allowed by the USDA, which creates a particular problem for organic farmers.
Beyond the new regulations, lawyers affiliated with CAFS are engaged in other forms of policy-oriented advocacy. Jamie Renner, CAFS’s clinical lead, is compiling all existing state-level legislation that supports connecting farms and schools through both the classroom and the cafeteria. The goal is to create a compendium of the various sorts of policies, and analyze their impacts.
In a different vein, CAFS created a web site (foodlabelfacts.org) that introduced consumers to the meaning and legal basis for everything that ends up written on a food label. In particular, the site identifies the adjectives and phrases—such as “organic,” “low fat,” or “gluten free”—that are backed by consistent definitions and standards overseen by the USDA or monitored by third parties. It contrasts them with the descriptors—like “locally grown”— that are not defined or reviewed. Renner and Beyranevand are in the process of expanding the website through a creative partnership with a national advocacy organization as well as developing other kinds of projects for students to pursue outside of the classroom.
Ristino believes that the law school’s leadership, in this historic moment, recognizes the opportunity to take a lead role in shaping the laws and facilitating the mechanisms that will allow a new kind of agriculture to flourish, one that is healthier for the community and the world. Food that is good for people, and good for the planet.
“The administration of Vermont Law has yet to discourage any of the ideas our staff has had,” says Ristino. “There are not many institutions where you can have this much innovation so quickly. The only thing that limits us is our imaginations,” she adds. “And we have good imaginations.”