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Farm Commons

Nonprofit legal services to help Wisconsin's small family farms
Buying produce, milk, and eggs from your local farmer is a great way to eat sustainably and support Wisconsin’s 66,600 small family farms. Like most small businesses, family farms operate with a very thin profit margin. When bad things happen on a farm, it can be catastrophic to both the business and the family that runs it.
According to Rachel Armstrong, director of Farm Commons, small-scale farmers are much less likely to meet with an attorney than typical small business owners. “If farmers don’t understand their legal obligations, they are taking unacknowledged risks. They may also be missing opportunities that they don’t know about,” says Armstrong. “An attorney can help make the farm a more stable and resilient business.”
Farm Commons, a nonprofit legal organization based in Madison, was founded in 2012 by Armstrong to help farmers navigate basic legal issues surrounding organic production and local- and direct-market sales. Armstrong says she often advises farmers on how to address fundamental business concerns like managing risks and liabilities, understanding product regulations, negotiating land lease terms, separating personal and business assets, and writing employment agreements. Farm Commons also helps farmers to establish a limited liability company, set up a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, or get organic certification.
Armstrong says her ideas about supporting local food systems crystallized during her time at UW–Madison as a wildlife ecology student, after which she became very involved in the sustainable agriculture community. As she transitioned into law, Armstrong recognized that the business of sustainable agriculture was a largely unexplored realm of risk and regulation. “Innovation is good, but it needs to be informed by the broader context,” she says. “When we’re developing really innovative business models like community supported agriculture, we need to make sure we’re still following regulations, calculating our risks, and protecting ourselves legally.”
Informed by her time spent on farms and working with CSAs, Armstrong developed a set of clear, plain-language legal guides that describe what the regulations are and how they affect farmers. Farm Commons also provides regular webinars on myriad topics like hosting on-farm events, adding value to farm products, and food safety regulations. In addition to sharing materials for free online, Armstrong also provides guidance to other attorneys as well as organizations like the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service and the Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Armstrong notes that the majority of her work consists of education and outreach, as there is very little demand for legal help among small-scale farmers. “A lot of farmers think that attorneys don’t understand farm business and aren’t helpful. Sometimes attorneys get called The Department of No because they advise against risks and see innovation as too risky. But we can help farmers manage risks, instead of taking uninformed risks or simply avoiding risk altogether.”
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Augusta Scescke is a former editorial assistant for Wisconsin People & Ideas. She is a 2013 graduate of Northeastern Illinois University with a degree in Sociology. Her research history includes an interview and photography project about the meanings of quilting to Appalachian women.

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