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Pop Quiz… Name the only segment of the economy with a division of government devoted to it.  The answer is agriculture. From the regulation of food preparation to the use of food aid as a foreign policy tool, agricultural and the laws surrounding it impacts all of us whether we like to admit it or not.

The term agricultural law may not as common as personal injury law  or divorce law , but make no mistake, agriculture and the law are forever intertwined. It naturally follows that where government is, so will be the lawyers advocating for their client. Much like a farmer, an agricultural lawyer in rural Iowa has to know a little bit about of lot of things related to agricultural law and be willing to know when it is time to get a dedicated specialist. This column will touch on the various segments of agricultural law trends and identify the potential impact on members of the northeast Iowa farm community.

Estate planning, business planning, government farm policy and taxation readily come to mind as legal issues facing the farm community. However, food safety regulations, interpretation of federal pesticide laws, land use regulation decisions and foreign food aid policy have an impact on our local community, often time without knowledge until far after the decisions have been made. For example, one decision by the Supreme Court  applied the government's right of eminent domain to allow a city to take a private citizen's land and after paying for it, turn the seized property over to another private citizen who put it to use for profit.  In the struggle between expanding urban population centers and agricultural land owners, this precedent could be used to the detriment of land owners.  

It is good to see the government in action and stopping excesses, a fresh prospective if you will, following the ugly election cycle we are just exiting. These are summaries of ethical and legal issues that member of the Ag community who work for the Federal government have been caught in recent years from the Pentagon's Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures.  Yes, that is a real document handled by the Department of Defense's Standards and Conduct Office.

Agriculture Employee Sought for Approving Fraudulent Loans

A former employee of the Department of Agriculture is wanted for recruiting his friends to fraudulently apply for farm loans and then giving him money in exchange for approving the loans.  The former employee helped his non-farmer co-conspirators to fill out the required forms with the information required for approval.  Under this scheme, the former employee approved loans totaling $1.8 million.  He collected $340,000 for himself. The former employee has been charged with 98 counts including 56 for bribery. Federal sentencing patterns suggest that he is facing a long time in the federal criminal system. The loan applicants also likely face a dim, non farming future.

Seven Agriculture Inspectors Sentenced for Bribery Scheme

Seven U.S. Department of Agriculture fruit and vegetable inspectors were convicted of operating a scheme in which they received cash payments from fruit and vegetable wholesalers in return for the inspectors assigning lower grades to their produce.  The lower grade meant that the wholesaler could pay the grower a lower price for the produce and then re-sell it at the higher grade.
All pled guilty to one count of bribery each.  Bribery occurs when a public official seeks or accepts anything of value (such as cash) in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act (such as assigning produce grades).

Iowa on the National Stage for more than the Big Dance.

If it was a $50 fine to murder someone, we wouldn’t have a population problem anywhere. This phrase sums up why people follow the law. Either they fear the punishment (life in prison appears to be a higher deterrent) or they think the law is a good idea to begin with(most folks just wouldn’t). If the cost of non compliance is low, even a toddler knows that paying the piper is worth the fun or risk of non compliance. When no one really knows who is supposed to comply, then the rule enforcers are left with no clear line to enforce and anybody who doesn’t really want to expend effort to do anything doesn’t have to.

This principle is playing out in a case of national importance filed right here in Iowa. Currently, Iowa has a voluntary nutrient reduction system designed to combat the ever growing nitrate level in our drinking water. However, the laws on the books are unclear on who is on the hook for making sure the water stays clean. The Des Moines Board of Water Works Trustees (DMWW) has about 500,000 customers that it owes a duty to provide clean water to. It is spending a lot of money attempting to do so. Not satisfied with the lack of progress on the matter, they filed a federal Clean Water Act (CWA) lawsuit against the supervisors and drainage districts of three counties. The lawsuit alleges that the county supervisors, as trustees for the drainage districts, are operating the drainage districts in an “unlawful and antisocial” manner that is contrary to the “public health and welfare.” The DMWW seeks a court order to cease “all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by an NPDES or state operating permit.” They specifically targeted counties that had data to support their concerns about nitrate infiltration.

What DMWW really wants is change and since they aren’t getting their way through cooperation, they are seeking it through judges rulings. Its goal is to force national and state agencies change regulations and positions they have had for years. If successful, this case could impact the entire nation industry of agriculture. Farmers will feel the impact if they have to apply for discharge permits. It could ad some depth to the current voluntary nutrient reduction strategy. If state and local governments are mandated to take actions, perhaps funding will be available to farmers to implement buffer strips and other reduction stratagems that they will be compelled to complete if DMWW gets their way. Of course, those funds have to come from somewhere, schools, roads, bridges or tax payers wallets are all candidates I would suppose.

Can a farm tenant, who is terminated on the lease, sue for damages against the land owner for not being able to make corn stalk bales before fall tillage starts for the operator? Under Iowa Law, as of 1 July 2010 ,unless the parties agree otherwise, the tenant has the right to the property until the lease expires. In a recently decided case, the terminated tenant sued successfully for trespass damages where he had established that prior to the trespass of fall tillage, he was going to make corn stalk bales, even though the lease was enacted before the law change. Because the lease renewed automatically on 1 September 2010, after the law change in 2010, the change in the law was applied to the contract.

The kicker on this is that the tenant only had the lease with the change in the law because he hadn’t been properly terminated on 1 September 2010.The take away from this case is clear, following ag law and its rules is not a task to be tended to right before catching the opening monologue of Jimmy Fallon. The rules are complex, the courts will treat your operation like a business.

Monday, September 16, 2019
  • Patrick B. Dillon
  • Jill Dillon
Dillon Law PC
Patrick B. Dillon enjoys finding solutions to legal issues and catching problems for clients. Pat practices in the Sumner office regularly represents clients in district, associate district and magistrate courts for agricultural, real estate, criminal and collection issues. He drafts wills and trusts, creates estate plans and helps clients through the probate process.
Dillon Law PC
Jill Dillon focuses on family law, estate planning and IRS matters. Jill is a University of Northern Iowa undergraduate (Political Science Cum Laude) and a Drake University Law School graduate. Jill spent extensive time advocating for low income tax payers in front of the IRS and the State of Iowa Department of Revenue while at Drake.

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