Business and Financial
It took five months of negotiation, but the Ohio General Assembly has enacted a controversial bill that grants immunity from civil liability for coronavirus injuries, deaths, or losses. Governor DeWine signed House Bill 606 on September 14, stating that it strikes a balance between reopening the economy and keeping Ohioans safe. The bill will be effective in 90 days.
The bill’s statement of findings and declaration of intent illustrate why it faced disagreement within the General Assembly. After stating its findings that business owners are unsure of the tort liability they may face when reopening after COVID-19, that businesses need certainty because recommendations on how to avoid COVID-19 change frequently, that individuals who decide to go out in public places should bear responsibility for taking steps to avoid exposure to COVID-19, that nothing in existing Ohio law established duties on business and premise owners to prevent exposure to airborne germs and viruses, and that the legislature has not delegated authority to Ohio’s Executive Branch to create new legal duties for business and premises owners, the General Assembly made a clear declaration of intent in the bill: “Orders and recommendations from the Executive Branch, from counties and local municipalities, from boards of health and other agencies, and from any federal government agency do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability” and “are presumed to be irrelevant to the issue of the existence of a duty or breach of a duty….and inadmissible at trial to establish proof of a duty or breach of a duty in tort actions.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Diane Grendell (R-Chesterland), refers to it as the “Good Samaritan Expansion Bill.” That name relates to one of the two types of immunity in the bill, a temporary qualified immunity for coronavirus-based claims against health care providers. In its original version of H.B. 606, the House of Representatives included only the health care immunity provisions. Of interest to farms and other businesses are the bill’s general immunity provisions, however, added to the final legislation by the Senate.
General immunity from coronavirus claims
The new law will prohibit a person from bringing a civil action that seeks damages for injury, death or loss to a person or property allegedly caused by exposure to or transmission of coronavirus, with one exception. The civil immunity does not apply if the exposure to or transmission of coronavirus resulted from a defendant’s “reckless conduct,” “intentional misconduct,” or “willful or wanton misconduct.” “Reckless conduct” means disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that conduct or circumstances are likely to cause exposure to or transmission of coronavirus and having “heedless indifference” to the consequences.
Government guidelines don’t create legal duties
Consistent with the bill’s stated intent, the new law clarifies that a claimant cannot assert liability based on a failure to follow government guidelines for coronavirus. The law states that any government order, recommendation or guideline for coronavirus does not create a duty of care that can be enforced through a civil cause of action. A person may not admit such orders and guidelines as evidence of a legal right, duty of care or new legal cause of action.
No class actions
Another provision in the new law also prohibits a class action that alleges liability for coronavirus exposure or transmission if the law’s general immunity provisions do not apply.
Time period covered
The general immunity provisions apply only to a specified period of time: from March 9, 2020, when the Governor declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, until September 30, 2021.
Workers compensation not addressed
An earlier version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives would have classified coronavirus as an “occupational disease” and would have allowed food workers, first responders and corrections officers to receive workers’ compensation benefits for the disease. However, the Senate removed the workers’ compensation provisions from the final bill based on its belief that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation is already covering 85% of such claims.
What does H.B. 606 mean for agricultural businesses?
The new law provides certainty that agricultural businesses won’t be assailed by lawsuits seeking damages for COVID-19. A person claiming harm from exposure to COVID-19 at an agricultural business will only be successful upon a showing that the business acted recklessly and with intentional disregard or indifference to the possibility of COVID-19. That’s a high evidentiary standard and burden of proof for a claimant.
As is often the case when an immunity bill is enacted, however, there are several reasons why businesses should not let down their guards because of the new law. Note that while the law rejects government guidelines and orders about COVID-19 as a basis for placing legal duties upon businesses, following such guidelines and recommendations can counter an allegation of reckless or indifferent behavior about COVID-19 exposure or transmission. And there can be consequences from COVID-19 other than litigation, such as impacts on customer and employee health and safety, workers’ compensation claims, and negative publicity from an alleged COVID-19 outbreak. Continuing to take reasonable actions to manage COVID-19 and documenting actions taken can enhance the certainty offered by Ohio’s new COVID-19 immunity law.
Read H.B. 606 here.
Written by Barry Ward, Leader, Production Business Management, OSU Extension
Ohio cropland varies significantly in its production capabilities and, consequently, cropland values and cash rents vary widely throughout the state. Generally speaking, western Ohio cropland values and cash rents differ from much of eastern Ohio and parts of southern Ohio cropland values and cash rents. The primary factors affecting these values and rates are land productivity and potential crop return, and the variability of those crop returns. Soils and drainage capabilities are the two factors that heavily influence land productivity, crop return and variability of those crop returns.
Other factors impacting land values and cash rents may include buildings and grain storage, field size and shape, field accessibility, market access, local market prices, field perimeter characteristics and potential for wildlife damage, previous tillage system and crops, tolerant/resistant weed populations, population density, USDA Program Yields, and competition for the cropland in a region. Ultimately, supply and demand of cropland will determine the value or rental rate for each parcel.
The Western Ohio Cropland Values and Cash Rents study was conducted from February through April in 2020. The opinion-based study surveyed professionals with a knowledge of Ohio’s cropland values and rental rates. Professionals surveyed were rural appraisers, agricultural lenders, professional farm managers, ag business professionals, OSU Extension educators, farmers, landowners, and Farm Service Agency personnel.
The study results are based on 167 surveys. Respondents were asked to group their estimates based on three land quality classes: average, top, and poor. Within each land-quality class, respondents were asked to estimate average corn and soybean yields for a five-year period based on typical farming practices. Survey respondents were also asked to estimate current bare cropland values and cash rents negotiated in the current or recent year for each land-quality class.
According to the Western Ohio Cropland Values and Cash Rents Survey, cropland values in western Ohio are expected to decline slightly in 2020 by 1.5 to 2.6 percent depending on the region and land class. Cash rents are expected to be flat to slightly lower decreasing from 0.7 to 2.0 percent depending on the region and land class.
For the complete survey research summary go to the OSU Extension Farm Office website at:
Farming has always been an unpredictable way to make a living, and that unpredictability can lead to financial stress. Whether caused by down markets, weather impacts, rising input costs, high land values, poor decision making, medical issues or a host of other unforeseen circumstances, serious financial stress can be a reality a farmer must face.
Filing bankruptcy can be one way to address farm financial stress. But because of its consequences, bankruptcy is not a decision to take lightly and might not be the best option. Our newest resources target farmers who are dealing with financial challenges and considering bankruptcy. Facing Farm Financial Stress: An Overview of the Bankruptcy Option offers a seven part series of law bulletins and infographics focused on bankruptcy issues for farmers. The series covers:
- Assessing the bankruptcy option. Steps to take and considerations to make when dealing with financial stress, including alternatives to bankruptcy and farmer to farmer advice from families that have been through the bankruptcy process.
- An overview of bankruptcy law. We explain and visualize the legal process, people, institutions and legal terms involved in bankrptcy with a focus on Chapter 12, the law reserved for qualifying farmers and fishermen.
- Thriving after a farm bankruptcy. Ideas for setting a course to attain farm financial stability and reestablish relationships after filing bankruptcy, including farmer to farmer advice from those who've survived bankruptcy.
Our team of authors, which included myself along with OSU's David Marrison, Hannah Scott and Chris Zoller--created the resources with support from the USDA's National Agriculture Library and in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center (NALC). The series is available on our Farm Office site here or on NALC's site here.
Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
This edition of the Ag Law Harvest has a little bit of everything—Ohio and federal legislation responding to COVID issues, new USDA guidance on bioengineered foods, and a judicial review of Bayer’s Roundup settlement. Read on to learn about the legal issues currently affecting agriculture.
Ohio COVID-19 immunity bill stalls. While the Ohio House and Senate agree with the concept of immunity for COVID-19 transmissions, the two chambers don’t yet see eye-to-eye on the parameters for COVID-19 liability protection. H.B. 606, which we reported on here, has passed both the House and Senate, but the Senate added several amendments to the legislation. The House won’t be addressing those amendments soon because it’s in recess, and doesn’t plan to return for business until at least September 15. The primary point of disagreement between the two bills concerns whether there should be a rebuttable presumption for Bureau of Workers’ Compensation coverage that certain employees who contract COVID-19 contracted it while in the workplace. The Senate amendment change by the Senate concerns exemption from immunity for "intentional conduct," changed to "intentional misconduct.” Currently, there is not a plan for the House to consider the Senate’s amendments before September 15.
Lawmakers propose bill to avoid more backlogs at processing plants.
Most people are aware that the COVID-19 pandemic created a huge backlog and supply chain problem in U.S. meatpacking plants. A group of bipartisan representatives in the House recently proposed the
Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants Act, or RAMP-UP Act. The bill would provide grants up to $100,000 to meat and poultry processing plants so the plants could make improvements in order to avoid the kind of problems caused by the pandemic in the future. The plants would have to provide their own matching funds for the improvements. You can find the bill here.
Revisiting the Paycheck Protection Program, again. In a refreshing display of non-partisanship, Congress passed legislation in late June to extend the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Employers who haven’t taken advantage of PPP now have until August 8, 2020 to apply for PPP funds to cover payroll and certain other expenses. Several senators also introduced the Paycheck Protection Program Small Business Forgiveness Act, a proposal to streamline an automatic approval process for forgiveness of PPP loans under $150,000, but there’s been little action on the bill to date. Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation is in discussion with the Senate on its proposal for other changes to PPP that would expand access to PPP for agriculture.
More clarification for bioengineered food disclosure. You may recall that the National Bioengineered Food Law was passed by Congress in 2016. The legislation tasked USDA with creating a national mandatory standard for disclosing bioengineered foods. The standard was implemented at the beginning of 2020, but USDA still needed to publish guidance on validating a refining process and selecting an acceptable testing method. On July 8, 2020, that guidance was published. The guidance provides steps for industry to take when validating a food refining process under the rule. A lot of food refining processes remove traces of modified genetic material. So, if a refining process is validated, there is no further need to test for bioengineered material to disclose. The guidance also contains instructions on testing methods. Basically, “any regulated entity that is using a food on the AMS List of Bioengineered Foods and does not want to include a bioengineered food disclosure because the food or ingredient is highly refined and does not include detectable modified genetic material” should follow these testing instructions. Therefore, any entity with highly refined foods that do “not include detectable modified genetic material” should follow the recently published guidance.
Bayer settlement proposal under scrutiny. Last month, Bayer, the owner of Roundup, announced that it would settle around 9,500 lawsuits related to alleged injuries caused by using the product. Not only was the proposal supposed to settle previous lawsuits, but it was also meant to address any future lawsuits stemming from purported injuries caused by Roundup. A judge from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently pumped the breaks on this plan, stating that any settlement that would resolve “all future claims” against Roundup must first be approved by the court. A hearing will be held on July 24, where the court will decide whether or not to “grant preliminary approval of the settlement.”
Written by Barry Ward, Director, OSU Income Tax Schools
Significant tax related changes as a result of the new legislation passed in response to COVID-19 have created some questions and perhaps consternation over the past few months. Taxpayers and tax professionals alike are wrestling with how these changes may affect tax returns this year and beyond. OSU Income Tax Schools is offering a Summer Update to address these issues and other important information for tax professionals and taxpayers.
The OSU Income Tax Schools Summer Update: Federal Income Tax & Financial Update Webinar is scheduled for August 13, 2020and will be presented as a webinar using the Zoom platform.
- New tax provisions implemented by the CARES Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act and how to account for them such as the new net operating loss rules, the payroll tax credit, etc.
- Paycheck Protection Program Loan Issues: loan applications, forgiveness issues and the IRS ruling on loan expenditures that are forgiven under PPP are not tax deductible and how to account for them in preparing a return, etc.
- Dealing with the IRS in these difficult times. Also, what it means to the practitioner as to “dos” and don’ts” regarding the announcement that beginning this summer the IRS will allow the electronic filing of amended returns.
- The “Hot IRS Audit Issues – Pitfalls for S Corporations and Partnerships." Basis of entities as to the rules and related rulings, how to track basis in these entities, creation of basis where none had been computed in prior tax years, losses in excess of basis and when they are not allowed, definition of an excess distribution, taxation of excess distributions, distribution of appreciated property, conversion of C corporations to S corporations - do and don'ts, computation of the Built-In Gains Tax, inference and imputation of a reasonable wage for purposes of the computation of the qualified business income deduction, etc.
- Other rulings, developments, and cases.
- John Lawrence, CPA, John M. Lawrence & Associates: Instructor
- Barry Ward, Director, OSU Income Tax Schools: Co-Host & Question Wrangler
- Julie Strawser, Program Assistant, OSU Income Tax Schools: Co-Host and Webinar Manager
- August 13th, 2020: 10 am – 3:30 pm (lunch break: noon – 12:50 pm)
- Cost: $150
- Registration information and link to the registration page is at https://farmoffice.osu.edu/osu-income-tax-schools
- This workshop is designed to be interactive with questions from the audience encouraged.
Continuing education offered
- Accountancy Board of Ohio (5 hours)
- IRS Office of Professional Responsibility (5 hours)
- Continuing Legal Education, Ohio Supreme Court (4.5 hours)
Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Barry Ward, Leader, Production Business Management
Many farmers have utilized the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to obtain federal funds to help with payroll and certain non-payroll expenses in the wake of COVID-19. As we’ve discussed on our Farm Office Live webinars here, Congress revised the PPP with the passage of the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act earlier this month. As a result of the new legislation, the Small Business Administration released a series of Interim Final Rules (IFRs) and a new forgiveness application. The IFRs, available here, clarify certain points contained in the bill and provide revisions to previous IFRs. All of these changes affect how farmers can use the funds and how much of the funds can be forgiven from loan repayment requirements.
The new PPP provisions
- The “covered period” that applies to the issuance and use of PPP loan expenditures was to end on June 30, 2020, but the law now extends that date to December 31, 2020. This means that borrowers now have until December 31 to spend PPP loan proceeds.
- The “covered period” for loan forgiveness has also changed. Borrowers will now be able to have up to 24 weeks of costs forgiven and not subject to repayment. But borrowers who received loans prior to June 5, 2020 may choose to use the 8-week period provided in the original PPP. A borrower need not wait until the end of the covered period to apply for forgiveness if the borrower has expended the loan funds prior to the end of the covered period.
- The requirement that 75% of loan proceeds be used for payroll costs in order to receive full forgiveness has been reduced to 60%. This means that forgiveness is not applicable for any portion of non-payroll costs that exceed the 40% maximum for non-payroll. Under the original law, forgivable non-payroll costs could not exceed 25%.
- The amount eligible for forgiveness can equal the full loan amount plus accrued interest, and the IFR revises the eligible costs for both the 8-week and 24-week covered periods as follows:
- Payroll costs for 24 weeks at a maximum of $46,154 per employee and for 8-weeks at a maximum of $15,385 per employee, as well as benefits such as health care costs, state payroll taxes paid by the employer, and retirement contributions. Note that there are limitations to including health insurance contributions made on behalf of self-employed persons, general partners and owner-employees of S-corporations and to including employer retirement payments on behalf of self-employed persons or general partners.
- Owner compensation replacement is calculated according to 2019 net profit. The forgiveness limit for an 8-week covered period is 8/52 of the 2019 net profit, up to $15,385 and for a 24-week covered period, is restricted to two and a half months or 2.5/12 of 2019 net profit, up to $20,833.
- Mortgage interest, rent payments on lease agreements, and utility payment costs are eligible to the extent that they would be deductible as business mortgage, rent and utility payments on Form 1040 Schedule F or Schedule C. Note that although this language defines the forgivable portions of these non-payroll costs, such costs are not actually deductible if forgiven.
- Employers will have a longer period to rehire employees and restore salaries without reducing the forgiveness amount. This “safe harbor” date for rehiring employees is extended to December 31, 2020.
- An employer who isn’t able to rehire employees by the end of the “safe harbor” period may qualify for an exemption from a corresponding forgiveness reduction that would occur if the employer can document that:
- The employer is unable to rehire persons who were employees on February 15, 2020 or to rehire similarly qualified persons, or
- The employer is unable to return to the same level of business activity it was at before February 15 due to COVID-19 standards and requirements.
- For new loans taken out after June 5, loan proceeds that are not forgiven may be repaid in five years rather than two years. Loans prior to June 5 remain at a two-year repayment term, unless the lender agrees otherwise.
- Borrowers can defer repayment of the loan until the date that the lender receives the borrower’s forgiveness amount, or until 10 months from the end of the borrower’s forgiveness period if not applying for forgiveness.
- The original law prohibited borrowers from using the CARES Act provision that allows employers to defer payroll taxes once they received loan forgiveness, but the new law allows borrowers who receive forgiveness to also defer payroll taxes under the CARES Act.
The forgiveness application and process
A new forgiveness application was also released to correspond with the changes in the new PPP Flexibility Act. As laid out in the application instructions, borrowers are eligible to use a shorter “EZ application” for loan forgiveness if they meet one of these criteria:
- Borrower is self-employed and has no employees or
- Borrower didn’t reduce salaries or wages for employees by more than 25% and didn’t reduce numbers or hours of employees or
- Borrower experienced reductions in business activity as the result of health directives related to COVID-19 and did not reduce salaries or wages of employees by more than 25%.
The forgiveness process could take up to five months. It begins with a borrower submitting the application to the lender that provided the loan, who will have 60 days to review the application and send the approved application on to the SBA. The SBA will have up to 90 days to review the application, confirm the amount to be forgiven and remit to the lender the forgivable amount and any accrued interest, less any advance payments made to the borrower under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
Despite the recent changes to PPP, several gray areas and uncertainties remain, such as:
- PPP Loans received prior to June 5, 2020 allow the borrower to choose between an 8 week and a 24 week covered period. Farmers with a loan based on owner compensation replacement and no employees will likely benefit from choosing the 24 week covered period to meet the criteria for full loan forgiveness. One possible downside with choosing the 24 week covered period might be further rule changes that might be unfavorable to the borrower, although this is unlikely. There is still uncertainty as to whether a self-employed person needs to write a check to themselves to qualify for forgiveness based on the owner compensation replacement portion of the PPP Loan. The safe alternative would be to write this check even if the check is deposited back into the same account.
- According to some sources there is ongoing discussion regarding legislation that would grant forgiveness to all PPP loans under $150,000. This discussion of a safe harbor based on the size of the PPP loan is apparently being advanced by certain banks.
We encourage employers who obtained a PPP loan to talk with their lenders and accountants to capitalize on and comply with the PPP changes and make decisions about the forgiveness options. For those who have not yet applied for a PPP loan, the deadline is soon approaching —applicants have until June 30, 2020 to apply for a loan.
Read more about the PPP’s original provisions in our blog post here.
“Will I be liable for that?” is a common question we hear in the legal world. COVID-19 has made that question even more commonplace, especially as more businesses reopen or expand services and more people reengage in public activities. About a dozen states have acted on the liability concern and passed COVID-19 liability protections, and Congress is also deliberating whether federal legislation is necessary. Here in Ohio, the House and the Senate have been reviewing separate immunity proposals. Yesterday, Ohio’s House passed its bill, which aims to limit liability in certain situations where a person claims harm from the transmission of COVID-19.
The language of House Bill 606 effectively explains the House’s intent in putting forth its proposal, stating that:
- The Ohio General Assembly is aware that lawsuits related to the COVID-19 health emergency numbering in the thousands are being filed across the country.
- Ohio business owners, small and large, as they begin to re-open their businesses are unsure about what tort liability they may face, and recommendations regarding how best to avoid infection with COVID-19 change frequently.
- Businesses and premises owners have not historically been required to keep members of the public from being exposed to airborne viruses, bacteria, and germs.
- Those individuals who decide to go out into public places are responsible to take those steps they feel are necessary to avoid exposure to COVID-19, such as social distancing and wearing masks.
The House bill declares that for the above reasons, any COVID-19 “orders and recommendations from the Executive Branch, from counties and local municipalities, from boards of health and other agencies, and from any federal government agency, do not create any new legal duties for purposes of tort liability.”
The bill’s reference to not establishing a legal duty in regards to COVID-19 is important, as it forms the basis of immunity from liability for COVID-19 infections. Under Ohio law, a person who can prove that harm resulted because another failed to meet a required duty of care can make a successful claim of negligence and receive damages for harm caused. Negating a legal duty of care for handling of COVID-19 removes the possibility of civil liability.
The House bill clearly lays out its general liability protection in Section 4 and extends the immunity from March 9 to December 31, 2020 to “any person,” which includes an individual, corporation, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, association, school, for-profit, nonprofit, governmental, or religious entity, and state institution of higher education. But it also makes an exception from immunity where a person has acted recklessly, intentionally, or with wanton misconduct:
- No civil action for damages for injury, death, or loss to person or property shall be brought against any person if the cause of action on which the civil action is based, in whole or in part, is that the injury, death, or loss to person or property is caused by the exposure to, or the transmission or contraction of [COVID-19] or any mutation thereof, unless it is established that the exposure to, or the transmission or contraction of, any of those viruses or mutations was by reckless or intentional conduct or with willful or wanton misconduct on the part of the person against whom the action is brought.
Opponents to the bill claim that it would encourage persons not to take any COVID-19 precautions, but proponents argue that the bill does so by discouraging reckless behavior. Under the legislation, to behave recklessly means that “with heedless indifference to the consequences, the person disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the person's conduct is likely to cause an exposure to, or a transmission or contraction of [COVID-19] or any mutation thereof, or is likely to be of a nature that results in an exposure to, or a transmission or contraction of, any of those viruses or mutations.”
In addition to the general immunity protection explained above, the House bill also provides temporary civil immunity for health care providers, grants immunity to the State for care of persons in its custody or if an officer or employee becomes infected with COVID-19 in the performance or nonperformance of governmental functions and public duties, and expands the definition of “governmental functions” for purposes of political subdivision immunity to include actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ohio Senate is working on its own version of a COVID-19 immunity bill. A fourth hearing on Senate Bill 308 took place on May 27 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several substitute bills have replaced the original bill, and it's yet uncertain what the final version will contain.
There’s much disagreement over what we know about COVID-19, but one thing we can agree upon is that it has left an impact on the food supply chain. For some food producers, that impact is creating opportunity. Many growers see the potential of filling the gaps created by closed processing facilities, thin grocery shelves, and unwillingness to shop inside stores. If you’re one of those growers who sees an opportunity to sell food, we have a few thoughts on legal issues to consider before moving into the direct food sales arena. Doing so will reduce your risks and the potential of legal liability.
1. Follow COVID-19-related guidelines
Perhaps this goes without saying, but businesses should take COVID-19 guidelines seriously. Doing so will hopefully reduce the potential of a COVID-19 transmission in the operation while also minimizing the risk of an enforcement action and potential legal liability for failing to protect employees and customers. Follow the Ohio Department of Health Responsible RestartOhio Guidelines that are now in effect. Engaging directly with customers places a grower in the “Consumer, Retail and Services” sector guidelines, which are here. Mandatory requirements include protecting the health and safety of employees, customers and guests by establishing six-foot distances or barriers, wearing face masks, handwashing and sanitizing, checking for symptoms daily, posting signs, deep cleaning, and dealing with suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19. The FDA has also issued “Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants and Food Pick-Up and Delivery Services” here, and OSU’s direct marketing team has many helpful resources for implementing the practices here. Develop protocols based upon the guidelines, carefully train employees on protocols, and document your compliance.
2. Determine what food safety regulations apply to you
For food safety purposes, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and local county health department require licensing or inspection of certain types of food sale activities. The regulations are a bit messy, and it’s challenging to know when an operator is affected by these regulatory requirements. We’ve explained licensing laws pertaining to sales directly at the farm in this law bulletin, “Selling Foods at the Farm: When Do You Need a License?” There are more stringent requirements for those who sell meat, process food, or sell higher risk foods or several different types of foods. We’ve provided a few simple guidelines in the chart at the end of this post, but please refer to the above law bulletin for further details. Additionally, produce growers need to comply with Good Agricultural Practice (GAPs) and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules. Learn more about those on our Fruit and Vegetable Safety Program website here.
3. Check your zoning
If you’re within a municipality, you may have zoning regulations that apply to your production and sales activities. Check your local zoning regulation to ensure that those activities are “permitted uses” within your designated zoning district. If not, you may need to seek a “conditional use” permit. Also be aware that some municipal zoning regulations regulate “home businesses,” and a home bakery or cottage food operation that has customers coming to the home to purchase the goods might fall into that category.
If you’re outside a municipality, Ohio’s agricultural exemption from county and township zoning applies to your production and sales activities. Local zoning can’t prohibit your activities regardless of your zoning district, with limited exceptions if you’re in a “platted subdivision” situation (on a lot under 5 acres in a platted area of at least 15 other contiguous lots). Note, however, that county and township zoning can regulate a “farm market” that receives more than 50% of its gross income from goods that weren’t raised on the owner’s farm. You might need to comply with a few zoning regulations that pertain to the size and setback lines for your structure, the parking area, and ingress and egress points for customers.
4. You may have to collect sales taxes on some items
Most takeaway food items to be consumed off-site, such as meat and produce, aren’t subject to Ohio’s sales tax. But if you sell items that are not exempt from sales tax, you’ll need to collect sales taxes on the items. If you’re planning to sell ready-to-eat items on site, beverages, flowers, or container plants, you must charge and collect sales taxes and obtain a vendor’s license in order to submit the taxes to the state. Find more details in our law bulletin on vendor’s licenses and sales taxes here.
5. Review contracting situations
You’ll likely be presented with a contract or agreement in many situations, such as a farmers’ market contract or an agreement for selling on an online sales platform. Or you may need to generate your own contract for selling whole animals or establishing a “community supported agriculture” operation. In either instance, read your contracts carefully. Be sure to include and review important terms such as price, quality delivery dates, payment processes, late fees, data use, and other provisions related to your type of sale. Don’t hesitate to involve an agricultural attorney to be sure that you’ve minimized your legal risk.
6. Talk to your insurance provider
Direct food sales might not be adequately covered by your insurance policy. You’ll need to know whether you have sufficient premises liability coverage if a customer is harmed on your farm, coverage for transporting foods or for selling at a farmers’ market (typically required by the market) and product liability coverage in case someone claims illness or other injury from consuming your food. You may need to increase coverage or purchase additional riders to the policy, depending on your risk level. Reviewing your policy with your provider and aligning coverage with your food sales activities is imperative to reducing your liability risk.
7. Do you need a separate business entity?
Consider whether your food sales activities put other assets at risk, and whether your insurance is sufficient to address that risk. If not, you should consider forming a separate business entity for your direct marketing business. Forming a Limited Liability Company for your direct food sales activities can help shield your other assets from the liability of the food sales. Talk with an agricultural attorney to assess your needs and determine what type of entity is best for your situation.
8. Keep great records
This one applies to everything above. Maintain records of what you do in regards to COVID-19 precautions, employee training, food safety compliance, and financial records of your expenditures and sales. If a liability incident arises, document it carefully. Keep the records for the required amount of time, which is typically three years for receipts for purchases and sales, ten years for insurance and employee records, and permanently for other records.
9. Don’t stop here
This list is a starting point for legal considerations for direct food sales, but it shouldn’t be the end. There may be other legal issues that affect your particularly situation. To learn more and fully consider all risks of direct marketing, talk with others who’ve directly sold food, visit with your accountant, lawyer and insurance provider, and learn the best practices for growing and marketing your food products.
Do you need a license for your direct-to-customer food sales?
Peggy Kirk Hall, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Emily Marrison, OSU Extension Coshocton County
We offer this chart as guidance and not as legal advice. Please confirm your specific situation and needs with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and your local county health department.
Selling meat for custom operator processing. You don’t need a license to sell an animal to a customer who will have it processed by a custom operator. But you can’t bring custom operator processed meat back to the farm and sell it to customers in individual portions; that type of sale requires processing by a federally approved processor.
Selling meat in individual portions. You may sell cuts of beef, pork and other livestock if the meat is processed and labeled by a processor that meets federal regulations and is deemed “fully inspected” by ODA (see a list of such facilities here).
Selling chickens processed at the farm. Growers may be surprised to learn that no license is required to process and sell up to 1,000 birds per year at the farm where the birds are raised. But if a grower sells the birds along with other food items such as produce, then the grower must register as a Farm Market and be inspected by ODA. The Farm Market registration form is here.
Selling eggs. A grower does not need a license to sell eggs produced at the farm where sold, as long as the grower has 500 or fewer birds. But if a grower wants to sell eggs through a farmer’s market or sells other low risk foods along with eggs, either a Farm Market registration and inspection from ODA (here) or a Retail Food Establishment license from the county health department is necessary.
Selling produce. Selling only fresh, unprocessed produce does not require any licensing. However, if selling other low risk foods along with produce, a grower must either register as a farm market through ODA or obtain a Retail Food Establishment license from the county health department.
Selling multiple food items. Regulation increases when a grower offers multiple types of food items for sale. If those items are “low risk,” the grower must register as a Farm Market with ODA, which involves a site inspection. If higher risk foods are involved, such as meat, eggs from offsite or from more than 500 birds, dressed poultry from offsite or from more than 1,000 birds, the grower must obtain a Retail Food Establishment license from the county health department.
Selling cottage foods and home bakery goods. Many home-prepared foods such as cookies, breads, jams, granola, snack mixes and more fall under Ohio’s cottage food law and require no licensing, but there are labeling requirements. See our law bulletin on Ohio’s Cottage Food Law here.
We've been anxiously waiting for details on additional financial support to farmers through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Those details finally arrived yesterday, when the USDA announced its Final Rule for CFAP's Direct Support to Farmers and Ranchers Program, which will allocate $16 billion in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Commodity Credit Corporation.
The Farm Office team has digested the Final Rule and written an explanation in our latest news bulletin here: Sign up for USDA-CFAP Direct Support to Begin May 26, 2020. The news bulletin provides details on:
- Eligibility requirements for producers
- Eligible commodities
- Payment limitations
- Application and timeline
- Payment calculations, including examples of how to calculate payments
The Farm Office team will also host a webinar about Ohio's CFAP sign up process soon. Be sure to check back with this blog and our Farm Office Live page for further information about the webinar.
The Final Rule and additional information on CFAP are available on USDA's CFAP website.
Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Kirk Hall
Many people are still working from home, but that hasn’t stopped legal activity in Washington, D.C. Bills have been proposed, federal rules are being finalized, and new lawsuits are in process. Here’s our gathering of the latest ag law news.
SBA posts Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness application. We’ve been waiting to hear more about how and to what extent the SBA will forgive loans made under the CARES Act’s PPP that many farm businesses have utilized. The SBA recently posted the forgiveness application and instructions for applicants here. But there are still unanswered questions for agricultural applicants as well as talk in Congress about changing some of the forgiveness provisions, suggesting that loan recipients should sit tight rather than apply now. Watch for our future blog post and a discussion on the forgiveness provisions in our next Farm Office Live webinar.
House passes another COVID-19 relief bill. All predictions are that the bill will go nowhere in the Senate, but that didn’t stop the House from passing a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package on May 15. The “HEROES Act” includes a number of provisions for agriculture, including an additional $16.5 billion in direct payments to producers of commodities, specialty crops and livestock, as well as funds for local agriculture markets, livestock depopulation losses, meat processing plants, expanded CRP, dairy production, other supply chain disruptions, and biofuel producers (discussed below). Read the bill here.
Proposed bipartisan bill designed to open cash market for cattle. Last week, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Jon Tester introduced a bill that “would require large-scale meatpackers to increase the proportion of negotiable transactions that are cash, or ‘spot,’ to 50 percent of their total cattle purchases.” The senators hope this change would bring up formula prices and allow livestock producers to better negotiate prices and increase their profits. In addition, the sponsors claim ithe bill would provide more certainty to a sector hard hit by coronavirus. Livestock groups aren’t all in agreement about the proposal. You can read the bill here, Senator Grassley’s press release here and Senator Tester’s news release here.
New Senate and House bills want to reform the U.S. food system. Representative Ro Khanna from California has introduced the House companion bill to the Senate's Farm System Reform Act first introduced by Senator Cory Booker in January. The proposal intends to address underlying problems in the food system. The bill places an immediate moratorium on the creation or expansion of large concentrated animal feeding operations and requires such operations to cease by January 1, 2040. The proposal also claims to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act and requires country of origin labeling on beef, pork, and dairy products. The bill would also create new protections for livestock growers contracted by large meat companies, provide money for farmers to transition away from operating animal feeding facilities, strengthen the term “Product of the United States” to mean “derived from 1 or more animals exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered” in the U.S., and, similar to the Grassley/Tester bill above, require an increased percentage of meatpacker purchases to be “spot” transactions.
Lawmakers ask Trump to reimburse livestock producers through FEMA. In another move that seeks to help livestock producers affected by the pandemic, a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives sent a letter to Donald Trump imploring him to issue national guidance to allow expenses of livestock depopulation and disposal to be reimbursed under FEMA's Public Assistance Program Category B. The lawmakers reason that FEMA has "been a valued Federal partner in responding to animal losses due to natural disasters," and that the COVID-19 epidemic should be treated "no differently." You can read the letter here.
More battling over biofuels. Attorneys General from Wyoming, Utah, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and West Virginia have sent a request to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to waive the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) because of COVID-19 impacts on the fuel economy. The letter states that reducing the national quantity of renewable fuel required would alleviate the regulatory cost of purchasing tradable credits for refiners, who use the credits to comply with biofuel-blending targets. Meanwhile, 70 mayors from across the U.S. wrote a letter urging the opposite, and criticizing any decisions not to uphold the RFS due to the impact that decision would have on local economies, farmers, workers, and families who depend on the biofuels industry. The House is also weighing in on the issue. In its recently passed HEROES Act, the House proposes a 45 cents per gallon direct payment to biofuel producers for fuels produced between Jan 1 and May 1, 2020 and a similar payment for those forced out of production during that time.
New USDA rule for genetically engineered crops. A final rule concerning genetically engineered organisms is set to be published this week. In the rule, USDA amends biotechnology regulations under the Plant Protection Act. Importantly, the new rule would exempt plants from regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) if the plants are genetically engineered but the same outcome could have occurred using conventional breeding. For instance, gene deletions and simple genetic transfers from one compatible plant relative to another would be exempted. If new varieties of plants use a plant-trait mechanism of action combination that has been analyzed by APHIS, such plants would be exempt. You can read a draft of the final rule here.
Trump’s new WOTUS rule attacked from both sides of the spectrum. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Trump Administration’s new “waters of the United States” or WOTUS rule. Well, it didn’t take too long for those who oppose the rule to make their voices heard. The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA) sued the administration, claiming that the new rule is still too strict and leaves cattle ranchers questioning whether waters on their land will be regulated. In their complaint, NMCGA argues that the new definition violates the Constitution, the Clean Water Act, and Supreme Court precedent. On the other side, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with other conservation groups, sued the administration, but argued that the new rule does not do enough to protect water and defines “WOTUS” too narrowly. Here we go again—will WOTUS ever truly be settled?
The Farm Office is Open! Join us for analysis of these and other legal and economic issues facing farmers in the Farm Office Team’s next session of “Farm Office Live” on Thursday, May 28 at 9:00 a.m. Go to this link to register in advance or to watch past recordings.