Contracts

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, July 05th, 2019

With many farmers in Ohio unable to plant before the Final Planting Date for crop insurance, questions are arising about planting and harvesting cover crops on those prevented planting acres.  USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) rules allow operators to plant cover crops on prevented planting acres and to hay, graze, or cut the cover crops for silage after the posted “harvest date.”  In previous years, the harvest date for cover crops was November 1.   If an operator harvested the cover crop before that date, the prevented plant payment would be reduced from 100% to 35%. 

The RMA has changed the harvest date for 2019, however.  In response to reduced livestock feed supplies that will result from the loss of planted acres this year, the RMA has moved up the cover crop harvest date to September 1.  An operator who plants a cover crop after the Final Planting Date and then cuts the crop for forage on or after September 1 can still receive 100% of the prevented plant payment, even if the operator sells the forage and regardless of whether the operator planted the cover crop during or after the Late Planting Period.  The Final Planting Date in Ohio was June 5 for corn and June 20 for soybeans; the Late Planting Period ended on June 20 for corn and runs until July 15 for soybeans.  Note, too, that a cover crop that was in the ground before the Final Planting Date but was not terminated because the operator couldn’t plant the intended corn or soybean crop can also be harvested for forage on or after September 1.

The RMA’s chart below illustrates payment scenarios for cover crops planted and harvested on prevented planting acres.

Cover Crop Planted

Disposition

Pay 100%

Pay 35%

Pay 0%

Before Final Planting Date (FPD) of the Prevented Crop**

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for silage during or before the end of the LPP

X

 

 

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for silage after the LPP, but before Sept 1

 

X*

 

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for silage on or after Sept 1

X

 

 

Harvested for grain or seed at any time

 

 

X

 

During Late Planting Period (LPP) of the Prevented Crop

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for Silage before Sept 1

 

 

X

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for silage on or after Sept 1

X

 

 

Harvested for grain or seed at any time

 

 

X

 

After Late Planting Period of the Prevented Crop

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for silage before Sept 1

 

X

 

Hayed/Grazed/Cut for silage on or after Sept 1

X

 

 

Harvested for grain or seed at any time

 

X*

 

*Provided the crop claimed as a cover crop is not the prevented crop and all other policy provisions are met.

**Example: Fall-Planted Cover Crop; Spring PP Crop

Other requirements for cover crops

While the cover crop harvest date seems pretty straightforward, don’t be fooled--crop insurance provisions can be tricky.  Farmers planning to put out cover crops on prevented plant acres should work closely with their crop insurance agents to ensure that all policy provisions and documentation requirements are met. 

An initial requirement is that the cover crop planted must meet the definition of an “acceptable cover crop” for crop insurance purposes.   The RMA considers an acceptable cover crop as one that is recognized by agricultural experts as agronomically sound for the area for erosion control or other purposes related to conservation or soil improvement and planted at the recommended seeding rate.  OSU agricultural experts can help provide guidance on acceptable cover crops.   

Operators should also be aware that many seed licenses, particularly for bio-engineered seeds, restrict the use of the seed to grain production only.  In those situations, planting the seed for a cover crop or harvesting it for silage would violate the seed licensing contract and create a liability situation for the operator.

Additionally, note that crop insurance provisions prohibit harvesting the cover crop for grain or seed, and an operator who does so will lose all of the prevented plant payment.  The cover crop harvest can also impact other provisions, such as the farm’s Actual Production History (APH) yields.  These and other provisions highlight the importance of a close working arrangement with the crop insurance agent in order to comply with RMA’s cover crop provisions.

For RMA’s guidance on Prevented Planting Flooding, go to this page.  The site contains a comprehensive list of questions and answers on prevented planting, along with information about the 2019 cover crop provisions.   

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

With all the rain and delayed planting that Ohio farmers have experienced this spring, signing a solar lease has been a very appealing prospect for many farmland owners.  While this may be the right decision for a farm, it is very important that the farmland owner understand exactly what he or she is signing.  Once an energy developer offers to pay you to enter into an agreement, and you sign that agreement, its terms will be legally binding.

In our recent blog post on solar leasing, we discussed some of the early documents that a farmland owner is likely to receive from an interested solar energy developer.  Further, we gave some general advice on what farmland owners should do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing his or her land.  One of our main suggestions was to take the time to fully understand what the farmland owner is getting into, and that is where this post comes in.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the important provisions of a solar lease that you as a farmland owner should look for in your solar lease, and understand what they mean.  A good solar lease will be very thorough, and include a lot of legalese.  Our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, will go more in depth than this blog post on the terms below and more.  It would also be a wise decision to consult with an attorney to ensure that your understanding of your solar lease reflects what the documents say.

For now, here are a few provisions to be on the lookout for in your solar lease:

The term.  How long does this lease last?  Most solar leases last for 20 to 30 years.  This is the time during which solar energy is being collected and sold.  Solar energy developers like this multi-decade duration because it allows them to use of the solar panels for their expected productive lifespan.

Thirty years is a long time.  Many careers are retirement-eligible after that period, and many farms will transition to the next generation in that amount of time.  This long of a term is not necessarily a bad thing.  It just means that a farmland owner should look back and look ahead.  Think back 30 years to 1989.  What all has changed on your farm?  What would it have looked like to not be able to use this ground for the past 30 years?  Now look ahead.  What do you expect your needs and those of your family to look like when this lease ends in 2049?  Only you can determine if not being able to use your land for that long is a good thing.

Phases.  How is this lease broken up?  We just explained that most solar leases will last for 20 to 30 years, but that clock usually starts ticking once construction has started on the project.  Solar energy developers will often reserve a year or two during which they can conduct their final feasibility studies and obtain necessary permits.  Some leases structure this pre-construction phase as merely an option phase, meaning that the energy developer will pay a small amount of rent to keep its option alive for that one or two-year period, but it does not necessarily have to commence construction.

Further, toward the end of the term, the energy developer may have written in an option to renew for another 5 or 10 years.  These renewals are often structured as a right that the energy developer may exercise merely by giving notice to the landowner.  Additionally, in the middle, if there is a natural disaster that puts the operation out of service for any period of time, a solar lease may stop the clock from ticking until the project is operational again and solar energy is being collected.

The important take-away for the phases is being able to know when each phase begins and ends.  When all of the different phases are combined, instead of just a 30-year lease, you could be looking at a 42-year agreement.  The only way to know how long it could last is to thoroughly read the entire lease.

A description of the premises.  Every solar lease will contain a description of the premises.  If an entire parcel is being leased, then this part is fairly easy.  However, if only a portion of the parcel is being lease, the farmland owner will want to make sure that the lease provides an adequate description so that the leased portion can be easily determined on the ground.  Often, this will include a survey and maps.  Knowing the boundaries is important because these leases are often exclusive, such that the farmland owner has little or no use or access of the leased land throughout the term.

Easements.  What rights are being granted to the solar energy developer?  Solar leases include a series of easements that give the solar energy developer the right to use your land.  Some of the common easements include a:

  • Construction easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property in order to construct the solar facility
  • Access easement: a right to cross over portions of the farmland owner’s property to reach the solar facility
  • Transmission easement: a right to install power lines, poles, and other equipment to transmit the energy produced by the solar panels to the grid
  • Solar easement: a right to unobstructed access to the sun without interference from structures or other improvements
  • Catch-all easement: a general right to do whatever is necessary for the benefit of the project

Solar energy developers want their easements to be as broad and generous as possible in order to maximize their flexibility with the project.  This is not always to the advantage of the farmland owner.  If the lease is general enough to allow the solar energy developer to sub-lease to another entity such as a telecommunications company, the landowner will have a difficult time preventing the solar energy developer from doing so.  The farmland owner wants to make sure that the easements being granted are specific enough to not result in any surprises.

Landowner obligations and rights.  What does the lease require of you as the farmland owner?  Usually private solar energy developers include a non-interference provision, a quiet enjoyment provision, and an exclusivity provision.  All combined, these provisions are a promise by the farmland owner to not enter the solar facilities without prior permission, not interfere with the solar facilities, and not allow anyone else to do so for the duration of the term.

Further, solar leases often include a confidentiality provision that courts will enforce as legally binding.  These provisions allow the solar energy developer to control the flow of its proprietary information, and also prevent landowners from talking with one another about topics such as rent rates.  It is important to understand:

  • What information is protected
  • If there are any exceptions
  • When consent might be granted
  • If specific penalties apply
  • How long confidentiality lasts

The solar lease may also include a provision about farmland owner improvements.  These explain if and when the landowner needs to obtain prior approval of the solar energy developer in order to build a structure or plant something that may interfere with the solar project.

Property maintenance.  Who is going to mow?  Ohio landowners have a legal duty to cut noxious weeds, and a well drafted lease will cover which party to the lease bears responsibility for keeping the leased land clear.  Usually, the solar energy developer will take this responsibility, but it helps to have this in writing.

Cleanup terms.  Cleanup involves a lot of questions.  Does the solar lease require the solar energy developer to restore the land to its previous state?  If so, how is this measured?  Will all stakes and foundations be removed?  Will all improvements, like roadways, be removed?  How will the solar energy developer guarantee that it will be able to pay for this cleanup in 30 years?  Does it post a security, and if so, when?  A thorough lease will answer these questions.

Tax and conservation penalties.  Tax and conservation also involves a lot of questions because constructing and operating a solar facility will make the property ineligible for the full benefits of CAUV and most conservation programs.  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover real estate taxes?  Does the lease require the solar energy developer to cover the three-year lookback penalty for removing land from CAUV?  What will the solar energy developer do toward the end of the lease so that the land can be put back into production and made CAUV eligible again?  Similar questions must be asked for conservation programs.

Compensation.  It’s not that we saved the fun and best part for last.  We just wanted to make sure that compensation is not the first and only thing considered when deciding whether or not to enter into a solar lease.  While it certainly is important, some of the issues discussed above must be just as carefully understood.

The solar leases that we have seen involve cash rent that increases over time based upon a fixed escalator.  The escalator is a percent increase.  If the escalator increases at a rate greater than inflation, then the farmland owner will receive more bang for his or her land.  However, if the escalator increases at a rate lower than long-term inflation, then the solar energy developer will have to pay less over time.

Another point of compensation to consider is how damages will be calculated for harm to property and crops.  When the solar energy developer decides it is time to start construction, its option and easements grant it the right to begin construction even if there is a crop already in the ground.  This makes it in a farmland owner’s best interest to have this issue addressed up front.  These damages will often be calculated my multiplying the number of acres by the average county yield for that crop by that crop’s commodity future price with the Chicago Board of Trade for a given date.  This provides an objective calculation for damages.

Verbal promises.  A note of caution: if the solar energy developer makes you a verbal promise, ask for that promise to be included in the written lease.  If there is a conflict between what a representative of the solar energy developer tells you and what is written in the lease, the terms in the written lease are likely to prevail.

The activity we are seeing across Ohio right now with solar reminds us of the early stages of the recent wind and shale energy booms.  Some of the biggest regrets that we hear about are from landowners who thought they were getting a better deal than they actually did.  Reading through, understanding, and thinking about the lease is an essential part of calculating whether or not the lease being offered is actually a good deal for a farmland owner and his or her family.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to your team of professionals in this process.  Your attorney, tax professional, extension educator, and others can be a great resource.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

We haven’t seen much sun in Ohio lately, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of solar energy development.  In the past two years, the Ohio Power Siting Board has approved six large scale solar projects with generating capacities of 50MW or more, and three more projects are pending approval.   These “solar farms” require a large land base, and in Ohio that land base is predominantly farmland.   The nine solar energy facilities noted on this map will cover about 16,500 acres in Brown, Clermont, Hardin, Highland and Vinton counties.  About 12,300 of those acres were previously used for agriculture. 

We’re hearing that solar energy developers are on the lookout for more land in these and several other counties across the state.  As the markets fluctuate and weather continues to prevent planting, leasing farmland to a solar energy developer might look pretty appealing.  But we always urge caution and due diligence for any leasing situation, and solar energy is no exception. 

What should you do if an energy developer wants to discuss leasing your farmland for a large scale solar energy facility?  Our best advice is not to jump too quickly.  Instead, take the time to fully understand what you’re getting into.  A typical solar lease can last for 30 years and thus can have long term legal, financial and social implications for a farmland owner.  An important initial question is how does this type of land use fit into your future vision for your land, your farm operation, and your family?  If you don’t yet know much about large scale solar development and what it means for your land, give a listen to this webinar from our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.

In this post, we’ll focus on the beginning of the solar leasing legal process.   The large scale solar projects in Ohio range from 600 to 3,300 acres of land, so a developer first has to assemble the land base once it identifies an area for a solar development project.   Leasing the land is the typical mechanism used for the solar projects in Ohio.  If a developer is interested in leasing your land, the first documents you may receive from the developer are a letter of intent and/or an option to lease.  These documents are the precursors to a solar lease but, like a lease, are written in favor of the developer and establish legal rights for the developer.  Careful review is critical, as these documents can tie up the land and the landowner for several years or more.

The letter of intent Some developers use a written letter of intent to notify a landowner of the developer’s interest in a parcel of land.  The purpose of the letter is to begin the process of considering the land for a long term solar lease.   Note, however, that a letter of intent might also contain a confidentiality clause that would prevent the landowner from talking with other developers about the land or sharing details of the developer’s interest with anyone.   Be aware that courts will generally enforce a signed letter of intent as a legally binding contract if the developer has offered the landowner a payment or similar benefit for signing the letter.   By signing confidentiality provisions in a letter of intent, a landowner can be foreclosed from considering other solar leasing opportunities.

The option to leaseMore commonly, the first document a solar developer will ask a landowner to sign is an option to lease.  Don’t be fooled by the name of this document and think that it’s not a legally binding agreement.  While an option is not the same as a lease, it can have the same legal effect of tying up the land for a certain period of time and might also dictate many of the terms of the lease if the developer decides to move forward on the project.

An option to lease grants the solar developer rights to explore the possibility of using the land for a solar project, but the developer may choose not to lease the land or develop the project.  The option period, typically up to five years, gives the developer time to conduct due diligence on the property, assemble other land parcels, secure financing, and obtain government approval for the project.  At the end of the option period, the developer should decide whether or not to proceed with the project.  An option also can give the developer the right to terminate and back out of the option at any time prior to the end of the option period. 

On the other hand, a landowner doesn’t have an option to back out once he or she signs an option to lease.  The landowner is bound for the entire option period.   Like a letter of intent, an option can contain confidentiality and “exclusive dealing” provisions that prevent the landowner from sharing details or entering into leasing opportunities with other developers during the option period.  The option might also require the landowner to cooperate with the developer’s due diligence and help the developer obtain approvals and permits.  Many options also include language that allows the developer to assign the option to another solar developer.

Be aware that an option can also contain significant leasing terms that carry over if the developer proceeds with the project.  For example, in addition to allowing the developer to consider the land for a project, the option to lease could also include provisions for the period of the actual long term solar lease, the lease payment amount, easement rights, and landowner obligations.  Landowners might think that such terms could be negotiable later if the parties sign an “official” solar lease, but the option language may bind the landowner to the leasing terms that are presented in the option.  Sometimes, the option itself becomes the lease.  The net effect:  a landowner who thinks he or she is just signing a five year option agreement might also be committing to a 30 year solar lease and a predetermined lease payment.

What about crop production during the option period?  An option might contain language stating that the landowner may continue managing and operating the property in the same way after agreeing to the option.  But the option might also allow the developer to enter the property and proceed with the project at any time, including when crops are in the ground, although the option might not provide the landowner payment for the lost production.  In that case, the landowner simply loses out on the crop if the option doesn’t contain provisions for lost production.

As for payment for the option, a landowner usually receives an initial payment for signing the option, perhaps several thousand dollars or more.  During the option period, the landowner also typically receives an annual payment that is based on number of acres, perhaps $20 dollars per acre or more. 

Should you have an attorney review an option to lease?  Yes.  Option language can vary and we surely haven’t addressed all potential issues in this post.   A close examination by an attorney shouldn’t take much time or cost a lot and will ensure that you fully understand the legal implications of entering into the option to lease. 

Are the terms of an option negotiable?  That’s up to the landowner and the developer, but don’t assume that the developer won’t negotiate.  If you’re faced with an option to lease and don’t like the terms, try negotiating.  An attorney can be helpful here, also.

In our next solar leasing post, we’ll review the terms of a solar lease and consider how the lease can impact agricultural landowners over the typical 30 year lease period.  Watch also for our upcoming Ohio Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, due out in the next month, which will provide a detailed examination of the solar leasing process.

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

Since our last legislative update in March, Ohio’s legislators and staffers have been busy introducing more legislation.  As of this morning, there are 332 bills that have been introduced by members of the Ohio General Assembly since January.  Some have already passed both the Ohio House and Senate, but most are still pending.  While we cannot write about every pending bill, the following bills relate to agricultural, local government, or natural resource law.  In addition to these bills that we have not yet covered, see the end of this post for an update about bills we mentioned in our last blog post.

Tax

  • Senate Bill 183, titled “Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers.”  Many agricultural news outlets quickly picked up on this bill.  The bill would authorize two nonrefundable tax credits.  One is for beginning farmers who attend a financial management program, while the other is for individuals or businesses that sell or rent farmland, livestock, buildings, or equipment to beginning farmers.  The Ohio Department of Agriculture would be responsible for certifying individuals as beginning farmers and for approving eligible financial management programs.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • House Bill 109, titled “Grant tax exemption for land used for commercial maple syruping.”  The bill would exempt “maple forest land” from having to pay property taxes.  The landowner would have to apply for the designation with the Ohio Department of Taxation.  Eligible lands are those lands bearing a stand of maple trees where 1) an average of at least thirty taps are drilled each year into at least fifteen different maple trees per acre of land, 2) the harvested sap is incorporated into a maple product for commercial sale, 3) the land is managed under a forest land maintenance plan, and 4) the property has ten or more acres or the sap harvest produces an average yearly gross income of more than $2,500.  Note that all four requirements must be met in order to qualify as an exempt maple forest land.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.

Real property

  • House Bill 103, titled “Change law relating to land installment contracts.”  Ohio’s Land Installment Contract Law, which applies to contracts involving properties with a residence but not contracts involving only open farmland, would see some significant changes under this proposed legislation.  The bill would shift the burden of paying property taxes and homeowner’s insurance from the buyer to the seller.  The seller would also be prohibited from holding a mortgage on the property.  The contract would have to include provisions stating that the seller is responsible for all repairs and maintenance on the property.  Interest rates would also be capped so that the rate cannot exceed the Treasury bill rate for loans of the same length of time by 2%.  For example, if a 5-year land installment contract is entered into on September 7th and the 5-year Treasury bill rate on that day is 2.64%, the interest rate for the land installment contract would not be able to exceed 4.64% under this bill.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.

Estate planning

  • House Bill 209, titled “Abolish estate by dower.”  Dower provides a surviving spouse with rights in any real property owned by a decedent spouse.  This bill would end dower estates moving forward, but any interests that vest before the change would take effect would still be valid.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.

Local government

  • Senate Bill 114, titled “Expand township authority-regulate noise in unincorporated area.”  A board of township trustees is currently limited to regulate noise coming from either areas zoned as residential or premises where a D liquor permit has been issued.  The bill would expand the township’s authority to regulate noise anywhere within the unincorporated territory of the township.  However, the bill does not affect another section of the law that exempts agriculture from noise ordinances, so agricultural activities would not be subject to any new noise ordinances, should this law pass.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • Senate Bill 12, titled “Change laws governing traffic law enforcement.”  Notably for townships, this bill would prohibit township law enforcement officers or representatives from using a traffic camera on an interstate highway.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.

Regulation of Alcohol

  • House Bill 181, titled “Promote use of Ohio agricultural goods in alcoholic beverages.”  The bill would authorize the Ohio Department of Agriculture to create promotional logos that producers of Ohio craft beer and spirits may display on their products.  Specifically, the bill would authorize an “Ohio Proud Craft Beer” and an “Ohio Proud Craft Spirits promotion.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 160, titled “Revised alcoholic ice cream law.”  Under current Ohio law, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol 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 that are authorized to sell alcohol.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.
  • House Bill 179, titled “Exempt small wineries from retail food establishment licensing.”  The bill would exempt small wineries that produce less than 10,000 gallons of wine annually from having to obtain a retail food establishment license in order to sell commercially prepackaged foods.  The sales of the prepackaged foods cannot exceed more than 5% of the winery’s gross annual receipts.  The winery would have to notify the permitting authority that it is exempt, and also notify its customers about its exemption.  Click HERE for more information about the bill.

Energy

  • House Bill 20, titled “Prohibit homeowner associations placing limits on solar panels.”  The bill would prohibit homeowners and neighborhood associations, along with civic and other associations, from imposing unreasonable restrictions on the installation of solar collector systems on roofs or exterior walls under the ownership or exclusive use of a property owner.  Condominium properties would similar be prohibited from imposing unreasonable restrictions where there are no competing uses for the roof or wall space where a solar collector system would be located.  According to the bill analysis, an unreasonable limitation is one that significantly increases the cost or significantly decreases the efficiency of a solar collector system.  Individual unit owners would also have the right to negotiate a solar access easement.  Click HERE or more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.
  • Senate Bill 119, titled “Exempt Ohio from daylight savings time.”  The bill would require Ohio to observe Daylight Savings Time on a permanent basis effective March 8, 2020.  The state’s clocks would spring forward in March, but there would be no falling back in the fall.  Click HERE for more information about the bill, and HERE for the current official bill analysis.

As for the bills that we previously covered in our March legislative update, the following chart explains where those bills stand.  Those that have passed at least one chamber have their passage status underlined in the column on the right.  Those that have had at least one committee hearing list the number of hearings, while those that have not had any activity in committee state only the committee that the bill has been referred to from the floor.

Category

Bill No.

Bill Title

Status

Hemp

SB 57

Decriminalize hemp and license hemp cultivation

- Passed Senate

- Completed first committee hearing in House

Watershed Planning

SB 2

Create state watershed planning structure

- Referred to Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee

Animals

HB 24

Revise humane society law

- Completed third committee hearing in House

Animals

HB 124

Allow small livestock on residential property

- Referred to House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee

Oil and Gas

HB 55

Require oil and gas royalty statements

- Completed first committee hearing in House

Oil and Gas

HB 94

Ban taking oil or natural gas from bed of Lake Erie

- Referred to House Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Oil and Gas

HB 95

Revise oil and gas law about brine and well conversions

- Referred to House Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Mineral Rights

HB 100

Revise requirements governing abandoned mineral rights

- Referred to House Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Regulations

SB 1

Reduce number of regulatory restrictions

- Completed three committee hearings in Senate

Business Law

SB 21

Allow corporation to become benefit corporation

- Passed Senate

- Completed first hearings in two separate House committees

Animals

SB 33

Establish animal abuse reporting requirements

- Completed fifth committee hearing in Senate

Local Gov’t

HB 48

Create local government road improvement fund

- Referred to House Finance Committee

Local Gov’t

HB 54

Increase tax revenue allocated to the local government fund

- Referred to House Ways and Means Committee

Property

HB 74

Prohibit leaving junk watercraft or motor uncovered on property

- Completed first committee hearing in House

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, July 31st, 2017

Written by Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Several pipeline projects are crisscrossing the state. While some landowners are just seeing equipment and workers show up on their property, others are seeing pipelines be buried and the land being reclaimed. Some Ohio landowners question whether pipelines on their property and reclamation of the land are being carried out properly.

Safety Issues Related to Construction of Pipelines

In certain circumstances, landowners with completed pipelines on their property can contact the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) with their concerns. PUCO has the authority to oversee safety issues on completed pipelines in Ohio. If a landowner is concerned that an existing pipeline on their property has a legitimate safety issue, that landowner should contact PUCO to report suspected safety issues. PUCO inspectors may issue a noncompliance letter to pipeline companies, if a violation is discovered.

If the landowner specifically suspects that the pipeline company is not following recommended standards and construction specifications, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts or the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) may be able to assist. By law ODA must cooperate with other agencies to protect the agricultural status of rural lands adjacent to projects such as pipelines. ODA publishes model pipeline standard and construction specifications intended to limit the impact of construction of a pipeline on agricultural productivity.

Contract Disagreement Issues (Non-Safety Issues)

If a landowner has an issue that is not related to safety, that issue may be addressed in the easement agreement between the landowner and the pipeline company. A pipeline easement is a contract. Both parties agree to uphold their obligations under the contract. Essentially, the landowner agrees to provide subsurface land and access rights to a pipeline company in return for monetary compensation.

Of course, an easement is much more complicated than that. As part of this contractual relationship, a landowner has the right to request that the pipeline company uphold their duties under the contract. If a landowner doesn’t believe that a pipeline company is following the terms of an easement, the landowner has the right to enforce the agreement. While the landowner may seek an attorney to do this, it may be best to work with the pipeline company first.

Landowners should consider keeping detailed notes of issues as they arise. For example, a landowner may wish to take written notes on and photographs of the property after noticing a construction issue. This may be helpful in presenting the issue to the pipeline company. It may be cheaper and faster to raise the issue with the pipeline company first, before speaking with an attorney. However, if a landowner’s complaints aren’t resolved in a timely manner after speaking with the company, the landowner will want to speak with an attorney to enforce the contract.

What to Remember When Speaking with a Pipeline Company Representative

As a practical note, it is important for a landowner to realize that the workers on a pipeline might not be from the pipeline company itself. For example, if a landowner has an issue with the way that the easement is re-soiled and re-planted, it could be a third party that did the work. Landowner’s should re-read their easement to ensure that sub-contracting is allowed. When a landowner calls a company, he or she should realize that the company may not have done the work, but rather a subcontractor completed the work. Therefore, the landowner should fully describe the issue to the pipeline company so that the company understands the issue. Any evidence, such as photographs or written notes may be very helpful in resolving an issue with the pipeline company.

It is always best to identify potential issues early. Landowners may want to check the progress of pipeline construction on their property as it occurs. If there is an issue, landowners should promptly contact the company. Landowners should check their easement agreement to see if the easement outlines a process to dispute terms of the agreement.

If the contract does not outline a process to dispute terms of the agreement, it would be best for landowners to speak with the construction foreman first, then moving up the management chain if the company doesn’t react favorably. If the company and the landowner can’t come to a resolution, the landowner may need an attorney at some point.

Reclamation of the Land

After a pipeline is buried, the soil and the surface of the land is ideally placed back in its original condition. This process is sometimes referred to as reclamation. The pipeline easement agreement between a landowner and a pipeline company usually discusses how this process will be completed. Landowners and pipeline companies often agree beforehand how the land will be reclaimed after the pipeline is constructed. Pipelines may disturb trees, soil, and waterways during the construction process. These disturbances may impact crop yields and grazing habits in future years. For this reason, landowners may wish to carefully monitor the reclamation process and enforce the terms of the easement.

Living with a Pipeline Easement

When landowners have concerns or questions regarding a pipeline on their property, the best place to start is the pipeline easement. Landowners may have recently signed an easement, or landowners may be subject to a pre-existing easement signed by a previous owner of the property. Current landowners are subject to pre-existing easements, because easements “run with the land.” Old easements don’t typically expire, unless the original easement language provides for extinguishment of the easement under certain circumstances (for example, abandonment the easement).

Pipelines are a common tool for the transportation of natural resources. Many Ohio landowners have pipelines crisscrossing their property. Landowners should raise any pipeline safety or construction issues with the appropriate state agency, and any contractual issues should be brought to the pipeline company. As always, a landowner should pay careful attention to the language of the pipeline easement in determining how to approach a potential problem.

More information on pipeline easements is here.

Peggy Kirk Hall, Asst. Professor, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

A written lease is a valuable tool to use in a farm lease situation, but many farm lease arrangements never progress beyond a conversation and a handshake.    A written lease brings certainty to the farming arrangement by laying out important terms such as lease duration, notice of termination, payment provisions and conservation practices. Verbal farm leases are risky; problems can arise with legal enforceability and disputes over rights and obligations.  For those dealing with a verbal lease agreement, here are a few strategies for protecting interests in the verbal farm lease situation.

Put the verbal lease in writing.  The first recommendation is no surprise; attorneys have long encouraged farmers to use written farmland leases rather than relying on verbal agreements.  But many landowners and tenants are uncomfortable using a written lease, for a variety of reasons.  Consider the following concerns and recommendations for addressing them:

  • “We’ve always operated on a verbal agreement and a handshake.”  Transitioning from a long-time verbal agreement to a written lease can be awkward and uncomfortable, and the landowner or tenant farmer who wishes to make the change may be uncertain about how to introduce the change.  To address an awkward transition, consider using a third party to “intervene” and facilitate the process of converting to a written agreement.  Have a farm manager, attorney or accountant explain the reasons for moving to a written agreement and begin the process of discussing lease terms.  Provide the other party with ample time to respond and to consider its own concerns and suggested lease terms.
  • “We don’t want everyone to know the terms of our lease.”  Landowners and tenants often express concern that a written farm lease must be recorded in the county recorder’s office, thus revealing private terms such as the price paid for the lease.  In this case, the parties may utilize a provision under Ohio law referred to as the “memorandum of lease.”  Ohio Revised Code section 5301.251 allows the parties to record a shortened form of the farmland lease.  The only provisions the parties must include in a recorded memorandum of lease are the names and addresses of the landowner and tenant, the date of executing the agreement, a description of the leased property, the starting date and duration of the lease and any rights of renewal or extension.   With the recorded memorandum of lease, there is public notice that the lease exists but key terms remain confidential between the landowner and tenant.  The parties can include a term in the written lease verifying their agreement to execute and record a memorandum of lease rather than recording the entire lease.
  • “A written lease is overwhelming or too much detail.”  It is true that farmland leases can be lengthy and detailed, although attorneys usually have sound reasons for drafting detailed leases.   Note that the parties can make a gradual transition.  Even a simple lease or a checklist can bring certainty to the relationship by outlining key obligations or providing resolutions if problems arise in the future.  Additionally, there are many good resources that simplify and explain farm lease provisions, and a few good “model” leases for reference.  For helpful resources, visit the website http://aglease101.org .

Pay attention to lease payments and possession.  If the parties can’t convert a verbal lease to a written lease, be aware that one problem with a verbal lease is that it’s not clear when the lease agreement actually begins.  In the event of a dispute, Ohio courts often look to factors such as possession and lease payments to determine the term of the lease.  Two indicators that a farm lease agreement is in place are possession of the property by the tenant coupled with acquiescence by the landowner, or a lease payment made by the tenant and accepted by the landowner.  Both parties should be mindful of these important actions and should maintain records to document these occurrences.

Address financial fairness.  Determining the payment amount for a farm lease is a challenging task, particularly when the farm economy is in flux.  Disagreement over the lease price can quickly end a verbal farm lease relationship.   Thorough research and equitable approaches can maintain the lease relationship by ensuring a financial arrangement that is responsive to the market and fair to both parties.   OSU’s Farm Management website at http://aede.osu.edu/programs-and-research/osu-farm-management contains data on farmland values and cash rental rates.  Consider a flexible cash lease to accommodate economic changes; information on flexible cash leases is also available through OSU’s Farm Management website and at http://www.aglease101.org.

Maintain records of the lease relationship.  Good records that document the leasing history can help establish a “course of dealing” between the parties.  While a written farm lease is preferable, a record of how the parties managed the lease or handled issues in the past can be a useful point of reference for ensuring consistency in the relationship.  If there is litigation over the lease, a court might rely on proof of the parties’ course of dealing to help resolve an issue.  Both parties should maintain thorough records of payments, agreements, farm management practices, soil sampling, nutrient applications, improvements and any other facts or data that establish the details of the leasing relationship.

Maintain communication.   Don’t underestimate the power of good communication between the leasing parties.  A landowner can provide a tenant with valuable certainty by keeping the tenant informed on potential changes with land ownership or financial management.  Tenants can keep a landowner apprised of the condition of the farm property by providing reports on a regular basis, especially in the case of an absentee landowner or a crop share lease.  A report that includes pictures and a brief summary of improvements made,  management practices adopted or crop share calculations may go a long way toward ensuring a solid leasing relationship.

A written and comprehensive farm lease is a valuable tool for farmland owners and tenant farmers alike; those who still rely on verbal farm leases should carefully consider making a transition to a written lease.  Parties that continue to use a verbal farm lease face legal and financial risks, but can adopt some practices to help protect the verbal farm lease situation.  For resources and examples of written farm leases, see http://aglease101.org.

Thanks go to my colleague Robert Moore for  submitting our first guest blog and sharing the following expertise on the issue of vomitoxin detection in corn.

by Robert Moore, Attorney, Wright Law Company, LPA

Ohio and other areas of the Corn Belt have seen unusually high levels of vomitoxin in corn.  Vomitoxin is a mycotoxin that can cause livestock to reduce feed intake and reduce weight gain.  Some elevators and ethanol plants have been rejecting corn that has tested too high for vomitoxin.  What legal standing do producers with rejected corn have?

Producers with a Contract                       

Producers who have a contract with a buyer must look to the contract to determine their rights.  All provisions, including any small print on the back of the contract, must be read entirely before assessing legal rights.  The language of the contract is what matters; any verbal agreements made outside the contract have very little effect in enforcing legal rights.  Even if the producer and buyer agree to certain terms, if the terms do not find their way onto the contract then the parties are probably not bound by the terms.

In regards to Vomitoxin, the key terms are those describing the quality of the corn required to be delivered.  Grain contracts will include at least the bare minimum “No.2 Yellow Corn” requirement.  No. 2 Yellow corn is a grade established by the USDA and may have up to 5% damaged kernels.  The USDA defines damaged kernels as “kernels and pieces of corn kernels that are badly ground-damaged, badly weather-damaged, diseased, frost-damaged, germ-damaged, heat-damaged, insectbored, mold-damaged, sprout-damaged, or otherwise materially damaged.”  Therefore, if the only grade standard in the contract is No. 2 Yellow Corn, a producer’s corn should not be rejected or discounted solely for Vomitoxin unless more than 5% of the kernels are diseased.  However, corn could likely be rejected if 3% of the kernels were diseased with Vomitoxin and another 3% were damaged in another manner.  The 5% threshold is the accumulation of all damaged kernels and not just a single type of damage.

Some contracts will include more restrictive grade terms such as “must be suitable to be fed to livestock” or “must meet all FDA guidelines”.  The FDA has established a 5 part per million (ppm) threshold for hogs and 10 ppm threshold for cattle and poultry.  Therefore, an elevator that requires corn to meet FDA standards or to be safe for livestock consumption can reject corn if it has more than 5 ppm vomitoxin.  It is important to note that corn could have less than 5% damaged kernels but have more than  5 ppm vomitoxin.  That is, the USDA No.2 Yellow Corn grade is a completely different standard that the FDA’s ppm standard.  Ethanol plants must be extra concerned with vomitoxin becoming concentrated in the distillers grain by-product and may have even more restrictive terms than FDA.

Producers that have corn rejected can have the dual problem of having corn rejected and still being obligated to fulfill the contract.  A worse case scenario would see a producer not being able to sell his corn due to high vomitoxin levels while still being required to fulfill his contract obligations for untainted corn with the elevator.  Local reports indicate that elevators have been letting producers out of their contracts if their corn has been rejected for vomitoxin but this could change at any time.

Producers without Contracts

A producer who intends to sell a load of corn to the elevator without a contract has very little legal protection from the corn being rejected.  The elevator is under no obligation to buy the corn and can simply opt not to buy the corn for any reasonable reason.  Without a contract, the elevator is not bound to any predetermined grade standards.  Even the smallest amount of vomitoxin in the corn could cause it to be rejected.

Disputed Grain Samples

Producers have the right to appeal the grain grading determination performed by the elevator.  The Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) oversees grain grading procedures and methods and also provides inspection and appeal services.  A producer who disputes the elevator’s grading can send a sample to FGIS and FGIS’ determination will be binding on both parties.  A FGIS office is located in Toledo.  For more details and information on grading appeals, contact FGIS at 419- 893-3076.

Crop Insurance

Some crop insurance policies cover Vomitoxin damage. It is best to have the corn checked by an adjuster while still in the field to avoid tainted corn from being mixed with untainted corn in bins.  Many producers have opted to not file a claim due to the significant impact on APH.  They would rather maintain a higher APH than to file a marginal crop insurance claim.  The deadline for any claims on vomitoxin was December 25, 2009.  In the future, a producer’s crop insurance agent should be contacted at the first sign of Vomitoxin to ensure that all claim procedures are property followed.

Future Implications

Will we see grain contracts move away from the USDA No.2 Yellow Corn standard and towards the FDA ppm standard for vomitoxin and other mycotoxins?  Elevators relying on the USDA standard could get stuck buying corn that exceeds the FDA’s ppm standards.  Unless blended with non-tainted grain, this grain would seemingly be unmarketable as it could not be used for human consumption, livestock consumption, and/or export. Producers should anticipate possible changes to grading standards in contracts offered by elevators and other buyers.  A careful reading of all new grain contracts should be a must for producers to make sure they fully understand the quality and grade of grain they are expected to deliver to the buyer.

Robert Moore is an attorney with Wright Law Co. LPA in Dublin, Ohio, www.wright-law.net.  E-mail:  rmoore@wright-law.net

Subscribe to RSS - Contracts