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Hello, readers! We hope you are all staying safe and healthy. Understandably, news related to agricultural law seems to have slowed down a little bit over the last few weeks as both the federal and state governments have focused mainly on addressing the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak. That being said, there have been a few notable ag law developments you might be interested in.
Federal government extends the tax deadline. The IRS announced on March 21 that the deadline for filing or paying 2019 federal income taxes will be extended to July 15, 2020.
Ohio Coronavirus Legislation. The Ohio General Assembly quickly passed House Bill 197 on Wednesday March 25, 2020. HB 197 originally just involved changes to tax laws, but amendments were added to address the current situation. Amendments that made it into the final bill include provisions for education—from allowing school districts to use distance learning to make up for instruction time, to waiving state testing. Other important amendments make it easier to receive unemployment, move the state tax filing deadline to July 15, extend absentee voting, allow recently graduated nurses to obtain temporary licenses, etc. Of particular note to those involved in agriculture, HB 197 extends the deadlines to renew licenses issued by state agencies and political subdivisions. If you have a state license that is set to expire, you will have 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted to renew the license. HB 197 is available here. A list of all the amendments related to COVID-19 is available here.
Proposed changes to hunting and fishing permits in Ohio. In non-COVID news, Ohio House Bill 559 was introduced on March 18. HB 559 would allow grandchildren to hunt or fish on their grandparents’ land without obtaining licenses or permits. In addition, the bill would give free hunting and fishing licenses or permits to partially disabled veterans. You can get information on the bill here.
EPA simplifies approach to pesticides and endangered species. Earlier this month, the U.S. EPA released its “revised method” for determining whether pesticides should be registered for use. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal agencies must consider whether an action (in this case, registration of a pesticide) will negatively impact federally listed endangered species. EPA is authorized to make decisions involving pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The revised method consists of a three-step process. First, EPA will consider whether use of the pesticide “may affect” or conversely, have no effect on the listed species. If no effect is found, EPA can register the pesticide. On the other hand, if EPA finds that the pesticide may affect the endangered species, it must examine whether the pesticide is “likely to adversely affect” the species. In this second step, if EPA decides that the pesticide may affect the endangered species, but is not “likely to adversely affect” the species, then the agency may register the pesticide with the blessing of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Conversely, if EPA finds that the pesticide is likely to adversely affect the species, it must move on to step three, where it must work with FWS or NMFS to more thoroughly examine whether an adverse effect will “jeopardize” the species’ existence or “destroy or adversely modify its designated critical habitat.” The revised method is meant to simplify, streamline, and add clarity to EPA’s decision-making.
EPA publishes rule on cyazofamid tolerances. Continuing the EPA/pesticide theme, on March 18, EPA released the final rule for tolerances for residues of the fungicide cyazofamid in or on commodities including certain leafy greens, ginseng, and turnips.
Administration backs off RFS In our last edition of the Ag Law Harvest, we mentioned that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had handed a win to biofuels groups by deciding that EPA did not have the authority to grant three waivers to two small refineries in 2017. By granting the waivers, the EPA allowed the refineries to ignore the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and not incorporate biofuels in with their oil-based fuels. The Tenth Circuit decision overturned this action. The Trump administration has long defended EPA’s action, so that’s why it’s so surprising that the administration did not appeal the court’s decision by the March 25 deadline.
Right to Farm statute protects contract hog operation. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you may recall that many nuisance lawsuits have been filed regarding large hog operations in North Carolina. In Lewis v. Murphy Brown, LLC, plaintiff Paul Lewis, who lives near a farm where some of Murphy Brown’s hogs are raised, sued the company for nuisance and negligence, claiming that the defendant’s hogs made it impossible for him to enjoy the outdoors and caused him to suffer from several health issues. Murphy Brown moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the nuisance claim should be disqualified under North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act, and that the negligence claim should be barred by the statute of limitations. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina made quick work of the negligence claim, agreeing with Murphy Brown that the statute of limitations had passed. North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act requires a plaintiff to show all of the following: that he is the legal possessor of the real property affected by the nuisance, that the real property is located within one-half mile of the source of the activity, and that the action is filed within one year of the establishment of the agricultural operation or within one year of the operation undergoing a fundamental change. Since the operation was established in 1995 and the suit was not brought until 2019, and no fundamental change occurred, the court determined that Lewis’s claim was barred by the Right to Farm Act. Since neither negligence or nuisance was found, the court agreed with Murphy Brown and dismissed the case.
It’s been a quiet few weeks here at the Farm Office as we adjust to life with Coronavirus-19, but it’s time to get back to the Ohio Ag Law Blog. We hope our readers are safe and healthy.
We’ve received several questions about Ohio’s Stay at Home Order and how it affects agricultural businesses. As you well know, the Order states that residents are to stay at home and may leave “only for Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, or to participate in Essential Businesses and Operations.” All non-essential businesses and activities are to cease. It became effective early Tuesday morning and remains in place until the end of the day on April 6. Here are the relevant parts of the Order that answer the questions we’ve received:
What businesses are “essential”?
The Order lists (on pages 5 and 6) the “Essential Businesses and Operations” that may continue during this period. The list specifically includes many agricultural activities, such as:
12 b. Stores that sell groceries and medicine. Grocery stores, pharmacies, certified farmers' markets, farm and produce stands, supermarkets, convenience stores, and other establishments engaged in the retail sale of groceries, canned food, dry goods, frozen foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, pet supplies, fresh meats, fish, and poultry, prepared food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, any other household consumer products (such as cleaning and personal care products), and specifically includes their supply chain and administrative supp0rt operations. This includes stores that sell groceries, medicine, including medication not requiring a medical prescription, and also that sell other non-groce1y products, and products necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences and Essential Businesses and Operations;
c. Food, beverage, and licensed marijuana production and agriculture. Food and beverage manufacturing, production, processing, and cultivation, including farming, livestock, fishing, baking, and other production agriculture, including cultivation, marketing, production, and distribution of animals and goods for consumption; licensed medical marijuana use, medical marijuana dispensaries and licensed medical marijuana cultivation centers; and businesses that provide food, shelter, and other necessities of life for animals, including animal shelters, rescues, shelters, kennels, and adoption facilities;
h. Gas stations and businesses needed for transportation. Gas stations and auto supply, auto-repair, farm equipment, construction equipment, boat repair, and related facilities and bicycle shops and related facilities;
o. Restaurants for consumption off-premises. Restaurants and other facilities that prepare and serve food, but only for consumption off-premises, through such means as in-house delive1y, third-party delivery, drive-through, curbside pick-up, and carry-out…. This Order is consistent with and does not amend or supersede prior Orders regarding the closure of restaurants.
The list also includes many businesses that service and supply agricultural businesses, such as hardware and supply stores, shipping and delivery services, and financial and professional services.
Can employees travel to and for an “essential business”?
Yes. The Order allows (on page 2) residents to leave their homes to perform work at Essential Businesses or Operations. The Order also allows (on page 7) for “Essential Travel,” which includes “any travel related to the provision of or access to” Essential Businesses and Operations.
What precautions should I take for employees and others at my “essential business”?
First, the Order lays out (on page 8) several required measures that Essential Businesses must follow:
15 a. Required measures. Essential Businesses and Operations and businesses engaged in Minimum Basic Operations must take proactive measures to ensure compliance with Social Distancing Requirements, including where possible:
Designate six-foot distances. Designating with signage, tape, or by other means six-foot spacing for employees and customers in line to maintain appropriate distance;
Hand sanitizer and sanitizing products. Having hand sanitizer and sanitizing products readily available for employees and customers;
Separate operating hours for vulnerable populations. Implementing separate operating hours for elderly and vulnerable customers; and
Online and remote access. Posting online whether a facility is open and how best to reach the facility and continue services by phone or remotely.
Second, the Order also includes (on pages 8 and 9) a COVID-19 Information and Checklist for Businesses/Employers that requires businesses and employers to take the following actions. We encourage employers to read these provisions carefully:
- Allow as many employees as possible to work from home by implementing policies in areas such as teleworking and video conferencing.
- Actively encourage sick employees to stay home until they are free of fever (without the use of medication) for at least 72 hours (three full days) AND symptoms have improved for at least 72 hours AND at least seven days have passed since symptoms first began. Do not require a healthcare provider's note to validate the illness or return to work of employees sick with acute respiratory illness; healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
- Ensure that your sick leave policies are up to date, flexible, and non-punitive to allow sick employees to stay home to care for themselves, children, or other family members. Consider encouraging employees to do a self-assessment each day to check if they have any COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, or shortness of breath).
- Separate employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms from other employees and send them home immediately. Restrict their access to the business until they have recovere
- Reinforce key messages stay home when sick, use cough and sneeze etiquette, and practice hand hygiene to all employees, and place posters in areas where they are most likely to be seen. Provide protection supplies such as soap and water, hand sanitizer, tissues, and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
- Frequently perform enhanced environmental cleaning of commonly touched surfaces, such as workstations, countertops, railings, door handles, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label. Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by employees before each use.
- Be prepared to change business practices if needed to maintain critical operations (e., identify alternative suppliers, prioritize customers, or temporarily suspend some of your operations).
What is “social distancing,” exactly?
There’s been a lot of talk about social distancing. The Order requires residents to practice social distancing when outside of their residences and defines (on page 15), exactly what it means:
15. Social Distancing Requirements. For purposes of this Order, Social Distancing Requirements includes maintaining at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands), regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands.
Who’s enforcing the Order?
The Order also addresses enforcement (on page 8), stating that:
17. Enforcement. This Order may be enforced by State and local law enforcement to the extent set forth in Ohio law. To the extent any public official enforcing this Order has questions regarding what services are prohibited under this Order, the Director of Health hereby delegates to local health departments the authority to answer questions in writing and consistent with this Order.
Note, however, that Governor DeWine (on Twitter) has encouraged businesses not to overwhelm law enforcement or local health departments with questions and advice on what’s “essential,” but instead to “use your own good judgment of that order to make your own determination if you are essential.”
Are there recordkeeping requirements?
No. But we attorneys always advise agricultural operators to keep good records. Governor DeWine agrees, as he has stated (on Twitter) that businesses should “create a document about why you believe you are an essential business and how you are providing a safe workplace.” If there is a question in the future about what you did or did not do during this important period, be sure that you have documentation to back it up. As always, documentation includes not only written information but also photographs and videos.
We encourage readers to carefully review the Stay at Home Order, which is available here on Ohio’s coronavirus.ohio.gov website. OSU also has a site with COVID-19 resources, available here on https://u.osu.edu/2019farmassistance/covid-19/
The Center for Food Safety (CFC), along with other groups and a number of organic farms, filed a lawsuit early this month claiming that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) when it allowed hydroponically-grown crops to bear the “Certified Organic” label. In January 2019, CFC filed a legal petition asking USDA to create regulations which would ban hydroponic operations from using the organic label. USDA denied the petition, and CFC’s current lawsuit also alleges that USDA’s denial violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). CFC asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to vacate USDA’s denial of their petition and to bar the agency from certifying any hydroponic operations as organic. The complaint can be found here.
What do “hydroponic” and “organic” mean anyway?
Many of you are probably familiar with hydroponic and organic growing, but since the terms are very important in this lawsuit, it’s worth reviewing them before we continue.
The USDA, on its National Agricultural Library website, defines “hydroponics” as “growing plants in a nutrient solution root medium.” In other words, hydroponic plants can be grown in mediums such as sand, gravel, and water with additional nutrients. Simply put, hydroponic plants are not grown in the soil.
OFPA (available here) says in order to sell or label an agricultural product as “organically produced,” the product must: 1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided; (2) except as otherwise provided in this chapter and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent. Thus, for a plant to be “organic,” it must meet these criteria.
CFC’s argument under OFPA
In their lawsuit, CFC is principally concerned with the third part of the organic requirements listed above—that in order to be labeled as organic, an agricultural product must be “produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan.” Organic plans, in turn, must also meet a number of requirements. One of those requirements is that the “organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” At its most basic, CFC’s argument is that fostering soil fertility is an integral and required part of the OFPA, and therefore, plants not grown in actual soil cannot meet all the requirements necessary for organic certification. In other words, since hydroponics by definition are not grown in soil, hydroponic farmers can’t foster soil fertility. As a result, CFC maintains that since fostering soil fertility is required in order for plants to be labeled “organic,” hydroponically-grown plants can’t be organic. By allowing hydroponics to be labeled organic, CFC asserts that USDA is in violation of the OFPA.
CFC’s argument under the APA
The plaintiffs also contend that USDA’s denial of their 2019 petition violated the APA. The APA (you can find the relevant chapter here) is the law that federal agencies must follow when writing and adopting regulations. Under the APA, courts have the power to overturn agency actions if they are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or are otherwise unlawful. Additionally, courts can overturn agency actions when they go beyond the authority given to the agency by Congress. Here, CFC argues that USDA’s denial of their petition was arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with the law. Basically, they are arguing that USDA violated the APA by ignoring the soil fertility language that Congress included in OFPA.
What’s USDA’s take?
USDA’s denial of CFC’s petition gives us a little insight into what the agency’s response to the lawsuit might include. The agency claims that the National Organic Program (NOP) has allowed hydroponic operations to be certified organic in the past. Furthermore, USDA counters that the statutory and regulatory provisions that refer to “soil” do not require every organic plant to be grown in soil. Instead, they say the provisions are simply “applicable to production systems that do use soil.”
The court will certainly have a lot to sift through in this lawsuit. USDA still has to respond to the complaint, and hydroponic operations might throw their support behind the agency’s cause. We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens and will make sure to keep you updated!
In Ohio and around the country, farmers are gearing up for a new planting season. Spring is (almost) here! Before we leave winter totally behind, we wanted to keep you up to date on some notable ag law news from the past few months.
Here’s a look at what’s going on in ag law across the country…
New law signed to ramp up ag protections at U.S. ports of entry. Last summer, a bill was introduced in the United States Senate by a bipartisan group of senators. The purpose of the bill was to give more resources to Customs and Border Control (CBP) to inspect food and other agricultural goods coming across the U.S. border. On March 3, 2020, the President signed the bill into law. The new law authorizes CBP to hire and train more agricultural specialists, technicians, and canine teams for inspections at ports of entry. The additional hires are meant to help efforts to prevent foreign animal diseases like African swine fever from entering the United States. You can read the law here.
The Renewable Fuel Standard gets a win. We reported on Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) issues last fall, and it seems as though the battles between biofuel producers and oil refineries have spilled over into 2020. For a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels. Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane. In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners. As a result, biofuels groups filed a lawsuit, asserting that EPA did not have the power to grant some of the waivers it gave to small oil refiners. On January 24, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed with the biofuels groups. You can find the 99-page opinion here. If you’re not up for that bit of light reading, here’s the SparkNotes version: the court determined that EPA did not have the authority to grant three waivers to two small refineries in 2017. The court found that EPA “exceeded its statutory authority” because it extended exemptions that had never been given in the first place. To put it another way, the court asked how EPA could “extend” a waiver when the waiver had not been given in previous years. The Trump Administration is currently contemplating whether or not to appeal the decision.
Virginia General Assembly defines “milk.” To paraphrase Shakespeare, does “milk by another name taste as sweet?” Joining the company of a number of other states that have defined “milk” and “meat,” the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill on March 4, 2020 that defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved mammal.” The bill would make it illegal to label products as “milk” in Virginia unless they met the definition above. Essentially, products like almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, coconut milk, etc. would be misbranded if the labels represent the products as milk. Governor Ralph Northam has not yet signed or vetoed the bill. If he signs the bill, it would not become effective until six months after 11 of 14 southern states enact similar laws. The 11 states would also have to enact their laws before or on October 1, 2029 for Virginia’s law to take effect. The states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. North Carolina has already passed a similar law.
And now, for ag law in our neck of the woods.
Purple paint bill reintroduced in Ohio. You may recall that the Ohio General Assembly has been toying with the idea of a purple paint law for the past several years. On March 4, 2020, Senator Bill Coley (R-Liberty Township) once again introduced a purple paint bill. What exactly does “purple paint” mean? If passed, the bill would allow landowners to put purple paint on trees and/or fence posts. The marks would have to be vertical lines at least eight inches long, between three and five feet from the base of the tree or post, readily visible, and placed at intervals of at most 25 yards. If the bill passed, such marks would be sufficient to inform those recklessly trespassing on private property that they are not authorized to be there. People who recklessly trespass on land with purple paint marks would be guilty of a fourth degree criminal misdemeanor. You can read the bill here.
Bill giving tax credits to beginning farmers considered. Senate Bill 159, titled “Grant tax credits to assist beginning farmers” had a hearing in the Senate Ways & Means Committee on March 3, 2020. The bill, introduced last year, seeks to provide tax incentives to beginning farmers who participate in an approved financial management program, as well as to businesses that sell or rent agricultural land, livestock, facilities, or equipment to beginning farmers. A nearly identical bill is being considered in the House, HB 183. Back in February, Governor Mike DeWine indicated he would sign such a bill if it passed the General Assembly. SB 159 is available here, and HB 183 is available here.
Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Ellen Essman
In the not-too-surprising news category, a federal court has invalidated the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) that Toledo residents passed last year to recognize and protect legal rights for Lake Erie. What is surprising, however, is how the court reached its decision to strike down LEBOR, even in the wake of a law passed by the Ohio legislature in July of 2019 that denies legal standing to nature and prevents a person from bringing a court action on behalf of nature or any ecosystem.
The verdict came exactly one year after Drewes Farm Partnership filed its federal lawsuit to prevent enforcement of LEBOR a day after Toledoans passed the measure. Drewes Farm asserted that LEBOR violated the farm’s rights under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Drewes Farm also argued that LEBOR exceeded the City of Toledo’s authority because it usurped the power of the state and the federal government by interfering with international relations, invalidating state and federal permits, invalidating state law, altering the rights of corporations, and creating new causes of action in state courts. In April 2019, the state of Ohio joined the lawsuit as a fellow plaintiff. Proponents of LEBOR unsuccessfully attempted to join in the litigation.
Did the plaintiffs have the right to bring the case?
The opinion begins with the court’s “standing” analysis. Toledo argued that Drewes Farm and Ohio did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the City. Legal standing requires that a plaintiff (1) suffers an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Failing to meet the legal standing requirement would force dismissal of the lawsuit. Without a finding in favor of legal standing, the court wouldn’t be able to determine LEBOR’s validity.
The central issue in whether the parties had legal standing was the injury in fact requirement, according to the court. To challenge LEBOR, the plaintiffs must demonstrate “concrete and particularized” injury that is “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” The court determined that the state of Ohio met this requirement because it suffered an injury, “at least on paper,” from LEBOR’s invalidation of Ohio laws, regulations, licenses and permits and because the state “could” be sued under LEBOR. The judge also found that Drewes Farm demonstrated injury in fact since any Toledo resident “could” sue the farm for violating LEBOR.
In its brief attention to the second component of standing, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, the court determined that the potential injuries were traceable to Toledo because its city charter was amended by voters to include the LEBOR language. Even though the City itself did not legislatively enact LEBOR, had actually attempted to keep the issue off the ballot due to concerns that it was unconstitutional, and had not indicated any intent to enforce LEBOR, the court concluded that “the City is a proper defendant in the suit.” The court also found that invalidating LEBOR would redress the plaintiffs’ injuries, the final requirement for legal standing.
LEBOR violates due process
The court next directly examined only one of the many constitutional claims against LEBOR, the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process, and specifically focused on one element of due process: clarity of the law. The court stated that if a law is vague and unclear, it can “trap the innocent by not providing fair warning and invite arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges, and juries.” Pointing to language in LEBOR such as the right of Lake Erie and its watershed to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and Toledoans’ right to a “clean and healthy environment,” the court questioned what type of conduct would violate the broad language and how a judge or jury would determine the line between “clean and unclean and healthy and unhealthy.” Spreading even a small amount of fertilizer could possibly violate LEBOR, the court said, as well as countless other activities such as catching fish, pulling weeds, planting corn, or driving a gas-powered vehicle. Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the language is void for vagueness. While LEBOR’s language sounds powerful, the court explained, it has no practical meaning, contains merely “aspirational statements” rather than rules of law, and violates constitutional due process.
What about other constitutional claims?
The court surprisingly didn’t tackle the many other constitutional issues raised by Drewes Farm and the State. But in its “severability” analysis, the court did briefly touch on the constitutionality of LEBOR’s preemption of state and federal laws. LEBOR contains a severability clause stating that a determination of one part of LEBOR as invalid does not invalidate the remaining parts of LEBOR. According to the court, this severability clause is valid only if the constitutional and unconstitutional parts of LEBOR are capable of separation and can stand by themselves. The court concluded that once the vague rights are stripped away, the remaining parts of LEBOR are meaningless.
The court then took the opportunity to note that LEBOR’s attempt to preempt Ohio law in the name of environmental protection would fail on its own merits. Lake Erie’s health falls well beyond Toledo’s authority and rights to govern its internal affairs, and enacting laws that conflict with Ohio law is a “textbook example of what municipal government cannot do,” said the court.
Protecting Lake Erie is a worthy goal
In a slightly sympathetic nod to LEBOR supporters “frustrated by the status quo,” the court notes that using a democratic process to protect Lake Erie is a well-intentioned goal but LEBOR simply fails to achieve the goal. Careful drafting by Toledoans could result in valid legislation that would reduce water pollution, the court explains, while highlighting an ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin that restricted the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers in the city and withstood a legal challenge.
It comes as no surprise
Echoing what many had already concluded, the court criticized LEBOR’s authors for ignoring legal principals and constitutional limitations and stated that LEBOR’s invalidation should come as no surprise. “This is not a close call,” the court says. “LEBOR is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio. It is therefore invalid in its entirety.”
LEBOR has met the end of its road, but it never really stood a chance of actual enforcement due to its clearly unconstitutional language. LEBOR’s proponents often claimed that the purposes of LEBOR were to gain more attention to Lake Erie’s poor water quality and to push the concept of recognizing legal rights for nature and ecosystems a bit further down the road. Were they successful? Will Toledoans give up, or will they regroup and carefully draft new legislation to protect their water?
Farmers in Ohio now have absolute certainty that they will not be sued for violating Lake Erie’s “rights,” but such a lawsuit never really stood a chance of actual success due to LEBOR’s clearly unconstitutional language. And let’s not forget the new language in Ohio Revised Code §2305.01 stating that “nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas; no person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas; and no person shall bring an action in any court of common pleas against a person who is acting on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem.”
And what about Lake Erie’s water quality? New voluntary programs are rolling out from Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio plan. But many claim that more forceful measures are necessary. Other litigation over the lake’s water quality lingers, and Ohio has listed the Western Lake Erie Basin as “impaired” and must develop a plan to address Total Maximum Daily Loads of pollutants in the lake. It’s no surprise that even though it’s the end of the road for LEBOR, conflicts over solving Lake Erie’s water quality problems will continue.
For months, would-be hemp cultivators and processors in Ohio have been waiting for the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to announce when applications for licenses would be released. Well, the wait is over—hemp applications became available online at 12:00 p.m. on March 3, 2020. Normally, the application window for hemp cultivation would run from November 1-March 31. Since the program is just getting off the ground this year, the cultivation application window has been extended to May 1, 2020. Hemp processing applications are accepted at any time.
As was discussed above, there are separate licenses for cultivating, or growing hemp, and for processing harvested hemp. In other words, being licensed to cultivate hemp would not allow you to process hemp, and vice versa. In order to apply for either one of the licenses, go to ODA’s hemp program page, available here. Once on that page, go to the “How to Apply for a License” drop-down. There, ODA walks you through the steps you must follow in order to apply for a license. First, you must create an OH|ID account. This account must be in the name of the individual applicant, principal researcher and/or the individual who is authorized to sign on behalf of the business—be that the farm or a processing facility. An email address and phone number for that person must also be included. After creating your OH|ID account, sign into it. After signing in, you can return to ODA’s hemp program page and go back to the “How to Apply for a License” drop-down and click on the link provided that reads “Then click here to apply.”
Keep in mind that if you wish to grow or process hemp, there are detailed rules you must follow, such as getting your sites approved, setback requirements, land use restrictions, and providing ODA with information like GPS coordinates of the land and the number of acres and plants you cultivate, just to name a few. To become licensed, you must also submit to a background check. A fee is required when you apply for a cultivation or processing license, and also annually when you renew your license. Fees are also required for each type of processing you plan to do and each growing location. After you become licensed, you must allow ODA to inspect your farm or facility and take samples. You must submit to testing to determine that your hemp or hemp products are at or below 0.3% THC. Licensed cultivators must also pay fees for sampling and if any THC re-testing is requested.
ODA’s hemp program page also includes a helpful frequently asked questions (FAQs) tab that answers everything from the difference between hemp and marijuana, to how to complete your background check, to how to plant and harvest hemp. If you are interested in growing or processing hemp, you really should read ODA’s hemp page carefully, as there is a lot useful information available there. For further information, Ohio’s hemp rules are available here. In addition, questions can be addressed by ODA by calling 614-728-2101, or by emailing email@example.com.
The year is still fairly new, and 2020 has brought with it some newly-introduced legislation in the Ohio General Assembly. That being said, in 2020 the General Assembly also continues to consider legislation first introduced in 2019. From tax exemptions to CAUV changes, to watershed programs and local referendums on wind turbines, here is some notable ag-related legislation making its way through the state house.
- House Bill 400 “To authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for the retail sale of high-ethanol blend motor fuel”
HB 400 was introduced after our last legislative update in November, so while it was first introduced in 2019, it still technically qualifies as “new” to us. Since its introduction, the bill has been discussed in two hearings in the House Ways & Means Committee. The bill would give owners and operators of gas stations a tax rebate of five cents per gallon for sales of ethanol. To apply, the fuel would have to be between 15% and 85% ethanol (E15). If passed, the tax credit would be available for four years. The bill is meant to encourage gas station owners in Ohio to sell E15, which is much more readily available in other states. The bill is available here.
- House Bill 485 “To remove a requirement that owners of farmland enrolled in the CAUV program must file a renewal application each year in order to remain in the program”
Introduced on January 29, 2020, HB 485 would make it easier for farmers to stay enrolled in the Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) program. CAUV allows agricultural land to be taxed at a much lower rate than other types of land. If HB 485 were to pass, the initial application for CAUV on land more than 10 acres would automatically renew each year but the landowner must notify the auditor if the land ceases to be devoted exclusively for agricultural use. Owners of agricultural land less than 10 acres in size, who can qualify for CAUV if gross income from the land exceeds $2,500, would have to submit documentation on the annual gross income of the land to the county auditor each year rather than filing the renewal application. The CAUV bill can be found here.
Legislation from 2019 still being considered
- House Bill 24 “Revise Humane Society law”
In November, we reported that HB 24 passed the House unanimously and was subsequently referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources. Since that time, the committee has held two hearings on the bill. The hearings included testimony from the bill’s House sponsors, who touted how the bill would improve humane societies’ public accountability. The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations, require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve, and would establish procedures for seizing and impounding animals. It would also remove humane societies’ current jurisdiction over child abuse cases and make agents subject to bribery laws. Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense. Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats. You can read HB 24 here.
- House Bill 109 “To authorize a property tax exemption for land used for commercial maple sap extraction”
HB 109 was first introduced in February of 2019, but has recently seen some action in the House Ways & Means Committee, where it was discussed in a hearing on January 28, 2020. The bill would give owners of “maple forest land” a property tax exemption if they: (1) Drill an average of 30 taps during the tax year into at least 15 maple trees per acre; (2) use sap in commercially sold maple products; and (3) manage the land under a plan that complies with the standards of reasonable care in the protection and maintenance of forest land. In addition, the land must be 10 contiguous acres. Maple forest land that does not meet that acreage threshold can still receive a tax exemption if the sap produces an average yearly gross income of $2,500 or more in the three preceding years, or if evidence shows that the gross income during the current tax year will be at least $2,500. You can find the text of the proposed bill here.
- House Bill 160 “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”
Have you ever thought, “Gee, this ice cream is great, but what could make it even better?” Well this is the bill for you! At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol in Ohio must obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol. This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. HB 160 passed the House last year and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Since our last legislative update, the committee has had three hearings on the bill. In the hearings, proponents testified in support of the bill, arguing that it would allow their businesses to grow and compete with out of state businesses. Senators asked questions about how the ice cream would be kept away from children, how the bill would help business, and about other states with similar laws. To read the bill, click here.
- Senate Bill 2 “Create watershed planning structure”
In 2019, SB 2 passed the Senate and moved on to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director. Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region. The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices. Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus. Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption.
Since SB 2 moved on to the lower chamber, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee has held multiple hearings on the bill, and has consented to two amendments. The first amendment would keep information about individual nutrient management plans out of the public record. Similarly, the second amendment would keep information about farmers’ agricultural operations and conservation practices out of the public record. The text of SB 2 is available here.
- Senate Bill 234 “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”
SB 234 was introduced on November 6, 2019. Since that time, the bill was assigned to the Senate Energy & Public Utilities Committee, and three hearings have been held. The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote. The bill would also change how minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured. The committee hearings have included testimony from numerous proponents of the bill. SB 234 is available here. A companion bill was also introduced in the House. HB 401 can be found here.
For the last several years, the state of Ohio and the U.S. EPA have been plagued with objections and lawsuits—from states, local governments, and environmental groups—concerning Ohio’s list of impaired waters and development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Some of our past blog posts on the subject are available here, here, and here.) Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states are required to submit a list of impaired, or polluted, waters every two years. Typically, designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of TMDLs for different pollutants, and an action plan for meeting those TMDLs. Ohio repeatedly failed to include the Western Basin in its list of impaired waters, even though the area has been subject to pollution-caused algal blooms in recent years. When the state finally listed the Western Basin waters as impaired in 2018, it still did not develop the accompanying TMDL for the area. However, Ohio’s TMDL drought ended last week.
Ohio EPA announced on February 13, 2020, that it would develop TMDLs for the Western Basin “over the next two to three years.” This decision will ultimately affect farmers in the watershed, as it is likely that the Ohio EPA would create TMDLs for phosphorus, nitrogen, and other fertilizers in the Western Basin. Consequently, farmers may have to reduce the amounts they put on their fields, and/or implement additional measures to keep such inputs from running off into the water.
So, Ohio listed the Western Basin as impaired and is working on TMDLs for the area—the controversy is over, right? Not so fast. Lucas County, Ohio and the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA that is still ongoing. (We last discussed this lawsuit here.) Basically, the plaintiffs in the suit are arguing that the U.S. EPA violated the CWA when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate the Western Basin as impaired in 2018, but did not make the state develop TMDLs. Even though Ohio has since promised to implement TMDLs for the area, the outcome of the case will still weigh in on the crucial question of whether the U.S. EPA can make states create TMDLs for impaired waters under the CWA. In addition, the U.S. District Court case applies to Ohio’s 2018 impaired waters list, whereas Ohio EPA’s recent announcement concerns the 2020 list. Finally, it’s doubtful that environmental groups and others will stop their efforts just because Ohio has now promised to create TMDLs—it’s almost a certainty that the debate over pollution in the Western Basin and the best ways to remedy the problem will persist.
Valentine’s Day was indeed a sweet day for Bader Farms, a peach farm in Missouri that claimed that dicamba products by Monsanto/Bayer and BASF drifted onto its property and injured 20,000 of its peach trees over 700 acres. A federal jury agreed and awarded the farm $15 million in compensatory damages. The following day, the jury gave the farm another $250 million in punitive damages against Bayer and BASF, bringing the total award to $265 million.
In 2016, Bader Farms was the first to file a dicamba drift lawsuit against Monsanto. A summary of the lawsuit from our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center, explains that the farm’s claim alleged widespread damage to the peach orchards and a multi-million dollar financial loss. At the center of Bader Farms’ original complaint was Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and Bollgard II Xtend cotton seeds (“Xtend crops”), dicamba-resistant seeds that Bader Farms alleged were released without an accompanying EPA-approved dicamba herbicide in 2015 and 2016. The farm argued that by selling the Xtend crop seeds without a corresponding herbicide, it was foreseeable to Monsanto that farmers would use old, highly volatile, drift-prone dicamba that had a strong chance of damaging neighboring crops.
Bader Farms later added BASF as a defendant to the case and also added new complaints for dicamba-related damage it suffered during the 2017 growing season. Bader Farms stated that Monsanto and BASF had worked together to manufacture, market, and sell dicamba-based products that they knew would cause harm.
The jury in the federal lawsuit ruled in favor of Bader Farms on all counts. Specifically, the jury concluded that Monsanto was negligent by releasing dicamba-tolerant seeds before releasing the herbicide. The jury also determined that both Monsanto and BASF were negligent because they issued new dicamba products that drifted off-target although the companies claimed that the products were less likely to drift. Important to the punitive damage award, the jury found that Monsanto and BASF had engaged in a “conspiracy to create an ecological disaster to increase profits.”
The Bader Farms case is the first of many dicamba-based cases against Monsanto/Bayer and BASF, combined last year into Multi-District Litigation involving both a Crop Damage Class Action Master Complaint and a Master Antitrust Action Complaint. For an excellent review of the dicamba cases, see the National Agricultural Law Center’s series on “The Deal with Dicamba,” available at https://nationalaglawcenter.org/the-deal-with-dicamba-part-three/.
Last year, we wrote a post on recent developments in ag-gag litigation. In that post, we discussed a few ag-gag laws that had been struck down on First Amendment grounds. Court actions and decisions in recent months show that this trend is continuing. Namely, decisions in Iowa and Kansas have not been favorable to ag-gag laws.
What is an ag-gag law?
“Ag-gag” is the term for state laws that prevent undercover journalists, investigators, animal rights advocates, and other whistleblowers from secretly filming or recording at livestock facilities. “Ag-gag” also describes laws which make it illegal for undercover persons to use deception to obtain employment at livestock facilities. Many times, the laws were actually passed in response to undercover investigations which illuminated conditions for animals raised at large industrial farms. Some of the videos and reports produced were questionable in nature—they either set-up the employees and the farms, or they were released without a broader context of farm operations. The laws were meant to protect the livestock industry from reporting that might be critical of their operations—obtained through deception and without context, or otherwise. The state of Ohio does not have an ag-gag law, but a number of other states have passed such legislation.
Injunction in Iowa lawsuit
You may recall that Iowa’s ag-gag law was overturned in January of last year. The judge found that the speech being implicated by the law, “false statements and misrepresentations,” was protected speech under the First Amendment. The state wasted little time in passing a new ag-gag law that contained slightly different language. (We wrote about the differences between Iowa’s old and new versions of the law here.) After passage of the new law, animal rights and food safety groups quickly filed a new lawsuit against the state, claiming that like the previous law, the new law prohibited their speech based on content and viewpoint. In other words, they argued that the new Iowa law was still discriminatory towards their negative speech about the agricultural industry, while favoring speech depicting the industry in a positive light.
While the new challenge of Iowa’s law has not yet been decided by U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, the court did grant a preliminary injunction against the law late last year. This means the law cannot be enforced while the case is ongoing, which is certainly a strike against the state. We’ll have to wait and see if the court is persuaded that the new language of the law violates the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, but for the time being, there is no enforceable ag-gag law in the state of Iowa.
Kansas law overturned
Kansas passed its ag-gag law in 1990, and has the distinction of having the oldest such law in the country. Although the law was long-standing, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas still determined that it was unconstitutional.
What exactly did the law say? The Kansas law, among other things, made it illegal, “without the effective consent of the owner,” to “enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera or by any other means” with the “intent to damage the animal facility.” The law also made it illegal for someone to conceal themselves in order to record conditions or to damage the facility. “Effective consent” could be obtained by “force, fraud, deception, duress, or threat,” meaning under the law, it was not permissible for an undercover whistleblower to apply for a job at an animal facility and work at the facility if they really intended to record and disseminate the conditions.
In a 39-page opinion, the court explained its reasoning for striking down the law. Following a familiar formula for First Amendment cases, the court found that the law did in fact regulate speech, not just conduct. The court stated that the “prohibition on deception” in the law prohibited what an animal rights investigator could say to an animal facility owner, and that the outlawing of picture taking at animal facilities affected the investigator’s creation and dissemination of information, which the Supreme Court has found to be speech. Next, the court found that the law prohibited speech on the basis of its content; to determine whether someone had violated the law, they would have to look at the content of the investigator’s statement to the animal facility owner. Furthermore, the court pointed out that the law did not prohibit deceiving the facility owner if the investigator intended to disseminate favorable information about the facility. Moving on, the court cited Supreme Court decisions to show that false speech is indeed protected under the First Amendment. Since the court found that the law prohibited speech, on the basis of its content, and that false speech is protected, it had to apply strict scrutiny when considering the constitutionality of the law. Applying this test, the court explained that the law did “not prevent everyone from violating the property and privacy rights of animal facility owners,” instead, it prevented “only those who violate said rights with intent to damage the enterprise conducted at animal facilities.” As such, the law did not stand up to strict scrutiny because it was “underinclusive”—it applied to a small group of people with a certain viewpoint, but nobody else.
Based upon its reasoning above, the court did overturn most of the Kansas ag-gag law. However, it is worth noting that it upheld the part of the law that prohibits physically damaging or destroying property or animals at an animal facility without effective consent from the owner.
What’s on the horizon?
The next two ag-gag decisions will likely be made by courts in Iowa and North Carolina. We discussed the Iowa case above—the court will have to determine whether the slightly different language in the new law passes constitutional muster. We’re also continuing to watch the lawsuit in North Carolina, which has been working its way through the courts for several years now. North Carolina’s “ag-gag” law is interesting in that it doesn’t just prevent secret recording and related actions at livestock facilities, but also prohibits such actions in “nonpublic areas” of a person or company’s premises.