New state bar agricultural law section kicks off to big success, attorney participation

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PHOTOSCOURTESY OF FOSTER SWIFT

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

What is old is new again.

That 10,000-year-old industry, agriculture, is making a comeback in the State of Michigan, and the new Agricultural Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) reflects its newly-regained star status.

Some would say agriculture really never went away.

Michigan is the second most diverse state in terms of agricultural produce in the United States, behind California, and agriculture has routinely been either the second or third largest industry in the state.

Michigan agriculture contributes over $90 billion annually to the state’s economy, and has increased steadily since 2004. It also provides employment for close to one million people.

As Liza Moore of Foster Swift Collins and Smith in Lansing, the newly-elected chair of the Agricultural Law Section, puts it, “The agricultural section has continued to grow very quickly in the past 10 years while other parts of the economy have not.”

And for the past several years, agriculture in Michigan has been getting greater respect befitting those statistics in terms of economic opportunity and community development efforts.

So Moore, along with Trent Hilding of Trent C. Hilding P.L.C.,  and Kristiana M. Coutu of Varnum’s Kalamazoo office, decided to submit the paperwork to SBM requesting an Agricultural Law Section. “We felt that an industry as vibrant and diverse as agriculture should have a State Bar section to help attorneys practicing in this area meet and share knowledge and ideas, with the goal of better serving this important community,” said Moore.

In order to start a section, SBM requires that at least fifty active attorney members pledge in writing that they will join. Within a week, the small group had received pledges from over sixty attorneys.

The section’s stated purpose is “to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas among members engaged in the practice of law servicing agricultural clients, with a view to: (i) improve the practice of agricultural law, (ii) study the principles, regulations, statutes, and legal developments that affect the agricultural community, and to (iii) improve the quality of legal services provided...”

Since SBM Board of Commissioner’s approval of the section, 128 attorneys have joined, and 49 people came to the section’s organizational meeting, held January 23 in Lansing.

At that meeting, in addition to passage of bylaws, the section elected officers and council members.

Moore was elected chair, Coutu Chair-Elect, and Hilding is the secretary. In addition, Michael J. Fraleigh of The Fraleigh Law Firm, PLLC in Troy will serve as treasurer. Council members include Jeff G. Haarer, City of Lansing; Todd W. Hoppe, also of Foster Swift Collins and Smith but in the Grand Rapids office; Laura E. Volkmann of Olivet; Brion B. Doyle, Varnum Grand Rapids office; John R. Dresser, Dresser Dresser Haas and Caywood in Sturgis; and Allison L. Eicher, solo practitioner in Lennon.

Because farms are also businesses, there is a broad spectrum of what constitutes legal work in agriculture. From helping with formation of business entities and planning for farm succession to advising on  environmental compliance and employee issues, as well as bankruptcy and debt collection, agricultural attorneys bring business backgrounds to bear.

But there are a few areas that are more particular to ag businesses. One example would be immigration law and assisting farms and agribusiness with I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification) compliance. Another involves the fairly complex legislation called Right-to-Farm, as well as local zoning matters. Because of the up-and-down weather-dependent nature of some agricultural enterprise, attorneys can also help with risk management.

Liza Moore points out that many practicing agricultural lawyers have a long history with farms and farming, often going back to childhood. “I was raised on a farm and was active in 4-H and FFA as a youth,” she says.  “I feel attorneys helping farms and agribusinesses have a strong connection to agriculture and truly care about their clients and the industry they serve.”

Moore has been with Foster Swift since 2008 when she graduated from Indiana University School of Law. In addition to being named to the “Top 5 under 35” by the Ingham County Bar Association, she is on the Michigan FFA (a youth-focused organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America) Foundation Board, and is a member of the American Agricultural Law Association.

Her Foster Swift colleague, Todd Hoppe, is the firm’s practice group leader for the Business and Corporate Practice Group. Among other business areas, he specializes in business organization and planning, estate planning and administration, and succession planning.

“I work a lot with ag producers, so farmers, coops, and the like, and help with issues like succession planning , disputes, tax and real estate, and some legal issues that are unique to farms. But my work with agricultural cooperatives is more complex, sometimes helping them negotiate  Sherman Antitrust Act — farm coops have a specialized exception — that’s always an interesting dynamic,” Hoppe said.

Indeed, his website details his involvement in a team that helped an agricultural marketing cooperative add a food processing facility, including Michigan Economic Development Corporation bond and other financing.

“I’m encouraged that lawyers in Michigan have responded so strongly to creation of the Ag Law Section, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Hoppe says. “I’m very interested to see the form it’s going to take, particularly looking at the people who are active in it who are willing to put in the time to make it a productive and useful section.”

Other West Michigan attorneys on the board include Brion Doyle, who is a member of that firm’s Litigation and Trial Practice group, as well as of its growing Agriculture and Farm Law group. Doyle’s experience is in commercial and environmental litigation and products liability defense, as well as serving on Varnum’s E-Discovery Task Force.

The Varnum Agriculture and Farm Law practice group has a blog called Growing Michigan, which  is found at http://www.varnumlaw.com/blogs/growing-michigan/, and gives up-to-the-minutes news about legislation and rules changes affecting agriculture. For example, a March 14 article by Dean Reisner of Varnum’s Grand Haven office talks about benefits to farmers found in the American Taxpayer Relief Act, including extension of the “enhanced deductibility” of conservation easement donations.

The Agricultural Law Section’s new chair-elect, Kristiana Coutu, also contributes to that blog. Coutu, who operates out of Kalamazoo, bills herself as a Corporate and Agricultural Law attorney, putting ag concerns front and center. She also participates in Varnum’s Native American Families and Individual Rights practice group.

The section’s annual meeting will be held in conjunction with the SBM full meeting in Lansing on Sept. 19 from 8:30 a.m.-12 noon.

For more information about the new section, visit www.michbar.org/aglaw/ or contact Moore at lmoore@fosterswift.com or 517-371-8281.

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