Environmental

United States Department of Agriculture
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, February 07th, 2023

Sometimes a legislative proposal stalls, appears dead, then emerges in another piece of legislation in a slightly different form.  That’s exactly what happened with the Growing Climate Solutions Act and its plan to help farmers with carbon and environmental credit markets.  First introduced in 2020, the bill gained some momentum and passed the U.S. Senate before coming to a standstill in the House. But Congress added the bill, with some negotiated changes, into the Consolidated Appropriations Act it passed in the final days of 2022. The USDA is now charged with implementing its provisions.

Purpose of the bill

The bill aims to reduce barriers for farmers, ranchers, and foresters who want to enter into voluntary markets that establish environmental credits for greenhouse gas emission reductions resulting from agricultural or forestry practices (also known as carbon credits).  It allows the USDA to create the “Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Program” if it appears, after an initial assessment, that the program would accomplish these purposes for farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners:   

  • Facilitate participation in environmental credit markets
  • Ensure fair distribution of revenues
  • Increase access to resources and information on environmental credit markets

Advisory Council

If the USDA determines that the program would meet the above purposes, it must establish an Advisory Council to help guide the program.  At least 51% of the Advisory Council must be farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners, including beginning, socially disadvantaged, limited resource, and veteran members.  Other members on the Advisory Council would include representatives from agencies, the agricultural and forestry industries, the scientific research community, non-governmental organizations,  and professionals and private sector entities involved in credit markets.

Protocols

A primary concern with the environmental credit market is uncertainty and variations in how to establish, quantify, and value environmental credits.  An important component of the new program is for USDA to publish lists of widely accepted protocols that are designed to ensure consistency, reliability, effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency of the markets along with documents relating to the protocols.  The act directs the USDA to include protocol documents and details on calculations; sampling methodologies; accounting principles; systems for verification, monitoring, measurement, and reporting; and methods to account for issues such as additionality, permanence, leakage, and double counting of credits.

Vendor registry

Another concern for landowners who want to participate in environmental credit markets is knowing who to turn to for technical assistance.  To address this issue, the program would require the USDA to create a registry of third-party vendors of environmental credits who can help farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners measure the carbon reduction benefits of different types of practices.  Unlike an earlier version of the bill, the USDA would not establish a certification program for these vendors, although the agency must ensure that the vendors possess demonstrated expertise in practices that prevent, reduce, or mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. 

Assessments

The USDA, in concert with the Advisory Council, must submit an initial and ongoing assessments to the agricultural committees in the Senate and House.  The initial assessment must examine ways to ensure certainly for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners in the marketplace.  Ongoing assessments would examine the environmental credit market itself, including actors in the market, participation, credits generated and sold, barriers to entry, opportunities for other voluntary markets, and more.

Program funding

The act provides an appropriation of at least $1 million per year to fund the program through 2027 and another $4.1 million of potential unobligated American Rescue Plan Act funds.  It specifically prohibits the USDA from using funds from the Commodity Credit Corporation for the program, a demand of the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, who states that those funds are obligated for Farm Bill program payments.

What’s next?

Farm Bill negotiations this year and other climate initiatives recently undertaken by the Biden administration, such as the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, could reduce the focus the Growing Climate Solutions Act would have received if it had passed when first introduced back in 2020.  Even so, the timeclock has started for the USDA to make its initial determination of whether the program would meet the intended purposes. Secretary Vilsack must make that determination by late September, and the expectation is that the program will proceed.  We should then see the Advisory Council established by fall and and can expect program outputs such as protocols and the third-party registry as early as 2024. 

Read the provisions of the new law beginning on page 1,512 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, H.R. 2617.

Picture of Adams Lake, Ohio
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, January 10th, 2023

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a big splash when it released its final rule for defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) on December 30. Immediate criticism and support for the new rule surfaced as many undertook the unenviable task of interpreting the rule’s 514 pages of text.  Perhaps some enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the latest development in WOTUS.  But how many responded with a bit of weariness, asking what this “new” rule really means for agriculture and, more importantly, does it really matter?

What does the new final WOTUS rule mean for ag?

There are several answers to this question.  The first and most practical answer is that the rule changes which waters are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Through its permit programs, the CWA aims to protect water quality by preventing discharges of pollutants, dredge, or fill into a water that fits within the rule’s definition of “waters of the United States.”  A water that falls into any of five categories now laid out in the new WOTUS rule is a “water of the United States” that will be subject to CWA permit requirements and regulations, once the rule is effective.  But the rule also contains exceptions and exclusions to CWA jurisdiction, and waters that fall into these categories won’t be subject to CWA regulation.

The categories, exceptions, and exclusions all attempt to draw lines around waterways that are at risk for pollution and dredge and fill activities and thus should be protected under the CWA.  It is the less “obvious” waterways, like wetlands and ephemeral streams, that create consternation and raise the eternal question:  when is a water sufficiently connected to an “obvious” water body, and thus at risk for harm, to warrant CWA regulation?  The new rule tries, once again, to answer this difficult question.  As it does so, it repeats many of the categories, exceptions, and exclusions that we’ve seen in previous WOTUS rules, but there are some changes and attempts at clarification.  For an explanation of the new rule’s categories, exceptions, and exclusions, see this summary of the rule by our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.  Agricultural interests have reacted to the changes in the rule; see this article for those reactions.

A second and more skeptical answer to the question of what the rule really means for agriculture is that it modifies the landscape for legal challenges to WOTUS.  As history illustrates, the new WOTUS rule will be challenged as the agencies interpret and enforce the rule against agriculture and other regulated communities.  New rule, new arguments, new court decisions--it’s a cycle we’ve witnessed before.  And a legal challenge to the validity of the rule itself, not just to an application of the rule, is also likely. The court cases that arise from such challenges might help answer the question of what the rule really means for agriculture or might instead create more confusion and continued battles.

Does the new rule really matter?

If you’ve followed WOTUS recently, you may know that the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard an appeal in October by the Sacketts, landowners who were affected by an agency interpretation that subjected their property to CWA jurisdiction.  That challenge centered on whether the “significant nexus” test is an appropriate test for determining whether the wetlands on the Sackett property fall into the definition of “waters of the United States.” The new WOTUS rule contains a renewed EPA attempt to clarify the “significant nexus” test and also introduces a new “material influence” standard for smaller waters and wetlands.  As we await the SCOTUS decision, we must acknowledge that its outcome could require EPA to rewrite any parts of the rule, especially the significant nexus and material influence provisions, that conflict with the Court’s holding.

Due to the impending SCOTUS decision and potential legal challenges to the rule, the WOTUS rule might not even go into effect.  The rule cannot be effective until 60 days have passed from the date it is published in the Federal Register.  It has not yet been published in the Federal Register, so the 60-day time clock is not yet ticking.  There’s a slight possibility SCOTUS will rule before that effective date, and also a possibility that if the rule does become effective, immediate legal challenges will put the rule on hold.  In both situations, we have an answer to the question of what the rule means for ag:  possibly nothing.

WOTUS weariness

I have never experienced such exhaustion over a legal issue as I have with WOTUS.  That’s because we have yet to solve the problem despite a long, long, parade of court cases and revised rules.  We still await clarity to the definition of WOTUS and certainty on which waters should be subject to CWA.  Congress could take a shot at doing so, given that Congress enacted the CWA and established the very term, “waters of the United States.”  Yet Congress sits silent on the issue. 

For me, it is the overlooked questions, and the need to examine the big picture, that most contribute to WOTUS weariness.  Is the WOTUS battle effectively addressing water quality?  Is it time to admit that a fix to WOTUS might require a new approach?  Under the old adage of “check your premises,” perhaps we should examine the premise upon which WOTUS rests—waters that are “inside” the scope of the definition are similar, all under the same risks, and should all be regulated by CWA.  While the obvious and easily identifiable water bodies can benefit from WOTUS and CWA, should we quit trying to define those other waters and instead focus on different mechanisms that manage water quality risks to them?  Would we get further, faster, with a new approach?

The final question:  is there actual improvement in water quality that comes with yet another rule, another change, and more challenges to the scope of the definition of WOTUS?  The answer to that question, I fear, is no--but a focus on that question could be a way to overcome WOTUS weariness.

Read the new WOTUS rule from the EPA, and additional EPA resources about WOTUS.  More on the Sackett case is in this recent blog post.

Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, September 29th, 2022

The first two weeks of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new term are important ones for agriculture.  The Court will hear arguments in two critical cases:  the “Sackett” wetlands case and a challenge to California’s animal welfare law, Proposition 12.  The new term for the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) begins October 3, with the Sackett case up as the Court’s first hearing.  The Court will hear the Proposition 12 case on October 11.  We focus this article on the Sackett case and will preview the Proposition 12 case next week.

The Sackett wetlands case, round 1.  The Sacketts may have become household names across the country in 2012, after the U.S. EPA prohibited Michael and Chantell Sackett from building a home on land they had purchased near Priest Lake, Idaho.  The Sacketts had filled wetlands on the property in preparation for construction, but the EPA issued a compliance order prohibiting further filling or construction and requiring restoration of the site.  The agency claimed authority to do so by declaring the wetlands to be “navigable waters of the United States” subject to the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The Sacketts challenged the order and EPA’s authority over their land.  However, lower federal courts declined to hear the case, believing the compliance order was not yet a “final agency action” that could be reviewed since the EPA had not yet enforced the order.  The case proceeded to its first appearance before SCOTUS, where the Court held that the compliance order was indeed a final agency action that could be reviewed in court. 

Back in court.  The Sackett case returned to the lower courts for determining whether the EPA had authority over the Sackett property.  The issue became a common one for CWA cases:  whether the Sackett wetlands were “waters of the United States” that fall under the CWA and the EPA’s authority.  The challenge of that issue, however, is determining which “test” to apply to the situation.  A court establishes a “test” as a framework for analyzing an issue.  Over the years, courts have struggled to agree on a clear test for determining when a wetland qualifies as “waters of the United States” that are subject to the CWA.  At this time, there are two competing tests developed by the Supreme Court:  the “significant nexus” test advocated by Justice Kennedy and the “continuous surface connection” test proposed by Justice Scalia.  Both the Trump and Biden administrations have also attempted to clarify the proper test by way of agency rulemaking, but those efforts are now tied up in litigation and revised rulemaking.

The Ninth Circuit decision.  The Sacketts are now before SCOTUS for a second time because they believe the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did not use the proper test in their case.  The appellate court applied the “significant nexus test,” which states that wetlands are “waters of the United States” when there is a “significant nexus” between the wetlands and navigable waters, as determined when the wetlands “either alone or in combination with the similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other cover waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”  The significant nexus test represents a broader definition and would subject more wetlands to EPA authority than Justice Scalia’s test.  Many argue that it’s also unclear and creates uncertainty for landowners.

The SCOTUS appeal.  The question the Sacketts now raise with SCOTUS is whether the significant nexus test applied by the Ninth Circuit was the proper test to use for its wetland determination.  The Sacketts argue that it isn’t.  They also urge SCOTUS to adopt an alternative test akin to Justice Scalia’s test in Rapanos v. U.S., which states that wetlands should have a “continuous surface connection” to “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water” to be deemed “waters of the U.S.”  The Scalia test, by requiring a continuous surface connection between wetlands and “permanent” waters, would narrow the extent of wetlands that are subject to the Clean Water Act. 

Predictions.   The Supreme Court surprised many when it announced its decision to once again review the Sackett case.  Given the changes to the composition of the Court since it heard the Rapanos case back in 2006, a logical prediction is that the Court will not only set aside the Ninth Circuit’s application of the significant nexus test, but will also adopt Justice Scalia’s test as the proper way to determine when a wetland is a “water of the United States” subject to EPA jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  We won’t know whether those predictions will become truth until sometime in 2023, when we can expect another Sackett decision from the Court.

Listen to the arguments in Sackett v EPA at 10:00 am on Monday, October 3 on the SCOTUS website at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/live.aspx or listen to the arguments on sites like https://www.c-span.org/supremeCourt/.

Signficant surface water draining across farm field
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

We can count on legal questions about surface water drainage to flow steadily in the Spring, and this year is no exception.  Spring rains can cause drainage changes made on one person’s land to show up as harm on another’s land.  When that happens, is the person who altered the flow of surface water liable for that harm?  Possibly.  Here is a reminder of how Ohio law deals with surface water drainage problems and allocates liability for drainage interferences, followed by guidance on how to deal with a drainage dispute.

Ohio law allows landowners to change surface water drainage

Back in 1980, the Ohio Supreme Court adopted a new rule for resolving surface water disputes in the case of McGlashan v. Spade Rockledge.  Previous Ohio law treated water as a “common enemy” to be pushed onto others, then absolutely prohibited any land changes that would increase surface water drainage for lower landowners.  In McGlashan, the Court replaced these old laws with the “reasonable use rule” that remains the law in Ohio.  The rule states that landowners do have a right to interfere with the natural flow of surface waters on their property, even if those changes are to the detriment of other landowners.  But the right to alter drainage is limited to only those actions that are “reasonable.”

Drainage changes must be “reasonable”

Although it allows drainage changes, the reasonable use doctrine also states that landowners incur liability when their interference with surface water drainage is “unreasonable.”   What does that mean?  The law contains factors that help clarify when an interference is unreasonable, a determination made on a case-by-case basis.  The factors attempt to balance the need for the land use change that altered drainage against the negative impacts that change has on other landowners.  A court will examine four factors to determine whether the drainage change is unreasonable:  the utility of the land use, the gravity of the harm, the practicality of avoiding that harm, and unfairness to other landowners.    For example, if a land use change has low utility but causes drainage harm to other landowners, or the landowner could take measures to prevent unfair harm to others, a court might deem the landowner’s interference with drainage as “unreasonable.”

What to do if a neighbor’s drainage is causing harm?  

The unfortunate reality of the reasonable use doctrine is that it requires litigation, forcing the harmed party to file an action claiming that the neighbor has acted unreasonably.  Before jumping into litigation, other actions might resolve the problem.  An important first step is to understand the physical nature of the problem.  Can the cause of the increased flow be remedied with physical changes?  Is there a simple change that could reduce the interference, or is there need for a larger-scale drainage solution?  Identifying the source of the harm and the magnitude of the drainage need can lead to solutions.  Involving the local soil and water conservation district or a drainage engineer might be necessary. 

Based on the significance of the solutions necessary to eliminate the problem, several options are available:

  • If identified changes would remedy the problem, a talk with a drainage expert or a letter from an attorney explaining the reasonable use doctrine and demanding the changes could encourage the offending landowner to resolve the problem.  If the landowner still refuses to remedy the problem, litigation is the last resort.  The threat of litigation often spurs people into action.
  • Sometimes the issue is one that requires collaboration by multiple landowners.  Identifying a solution and sharing its costs among landowners, based on acreage draining into the area, can be a way to solve the problem.
  • For more substantial drainage problems, a petition for a drainage improvement with the soil and water conservation district or the county engineer might be necessary.  Petitioned drainage improvements involve all landowners in the affected area and are financed through assessments on land within that area.  A visit with those agencies would determine whether a petition improvement is necessary and if so, how to proceed with the petition.
  • For smaller fixes, a landowner always has the option of filing a claim for damages through the small claims court.  The estimated damages or repairs must fall below the $6,000 limit for small claims.  A landowner can make the claim without the assistance of an attorney, and the dispute could be resolved more quickly through this forum.

As the Spring rains continue, keep in mind that the reasonable use doctrine sets a guideline for Ohio landowners:  make only reasonable changes to your surface water drainage and don’t cause an unreasonable drainage problem for your neighbors.  Where changes and interferences are unreasonable and landowners are unwilling to resolve them, the reasonable use doctrine is the last resort that provides the legal remedy for resolving the problem.

For more information on Ohio drainage law, refer to our law bulletin on Surface Water Drainage Rights

American Burying Beetle
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, March 31st, 2022

When the U.S. EPA approved the seven-year renewal registration for Corteva’s Enlist One and Enlist Duo on January 12, 2022, it also prohibited use of the herbicide in 217 counties across the country.  Twelve Ohio counties were on that list, preventing farmers in Athens, Butler, Fairfield, Guernsey, Hamilton, Hocking, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Perry, Vinton, and Washington counties from using the herbicides.  Welcome news for those farmers came on Tuesday, when the EPA announced that it is removing the restricted use for all Ohio counties.

The prohibition against using Enlist Duo’s use was because Corteva did not submit its use in all U.S. counties in the reregistration, many of which had endangered species and critical habitat that could be impacted by the herbicides.  The twelve Ohio counties that were not submitted for use by Corteva are home to the American Burying Beetle, which is on the Endangered Species list.  But in February, Corteva submitted a label amendment that proposed use of Enlist One and Enlist Duo in 128 of the previously restricted counties, including Ohio’s twelve counties. 

Upon receiving Corteva’s amendment, federal law requires EPA to complete an “effects determination” to assess potential effects on the endangered species in the previously restricted counties.  The assessment included reviewing updated range maps for the endangered species and their habitats that were provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Range maps help identify the overlap between the American Burying Beetle’s location and growing areas for corn, soybeans, and cotton where Enlist might be applied.  Based on the maps, the agency determined that the beetle was not present in 10 of the previously restricted counties and had less than a 1% overlap with crop areas in another 118 counties.

EPA also examined whether there would be direct or indirect effects on other listed endangered species or habitat in those counties.  The black-footed ferret was the only specifies identified in field areas in the 128 counties, and fifteen other listed specifies and three critical habitats were determined to exist off of the field areas.  But the EPA found that the Enlist label restrictions would address any concerns with these additional species and habitats.

After completing its effects determination and review of the amendment, the EPA concluded that “the use of these products—with the existing label requirements in place to mitigate spray drift and pesticide runoff—will not likely jeopardize the American Burying Beetle or other listed species and their critical habitats in these counties.”  Similarly, EPA determined that six Minnesota counties that are home to the endangered Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake were also removed from the prohibited list and approved for Enlist use.

EPA noted the importance of following the label restrictions for the herbicides, particularly in areas where endangered species reside.  The new label approved by the EPA in January contains changes to the previous label.  According to OSU weed scientist Mark Loux, those changes include a revised application cutoff for soybeans, “through R1” that replaces “up to R2” on previous labels, and the addition of a slew of spray nozzles to the approved nozzle list.  Enlist users should take care to review these new provisions.  As required by EPA, Corteva provides educational tools on using Enlist, available at https://www.enlist.com/en/enlist-360-training.html.

If you’re interested in reading more about the EPA’s registration review on Enlist One and Enlist Duo, the agency’s docket on the registration is available at  https://www.regulations.gov/docket/EPA-HQ-OPP-2021-0957/document.  The amendment letter for the recent removal of prohibitions on certain counties is at https://www.regulations.gov/document/EPA-HQ-OPP-2021-0957-0020.

Vintage picture of cowgirl on a horse with a lasso.
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, February 25th, 2022

It’s time to round up a sampling of legal questions we’ve received the past month or so. The questions effectively illustrate the breadth of “agricultural law,” and we’re happy to help Ohioans understand its many parts.  Here’s a look at the inquiries that have come our way,

I’m considering a carbon credit agreement.  What should I look for?   Several types of carbon credit agreements are now available to Ohio farmers, and they differ from one another so it’s good to review them closely and with the assistance of an attorney and an agronomist.  For starters, take time to understand the terminology, make sure you can meet the initial eligibility criteria, review payment and penalty terms, know what types of practices are acceptable, determine “additionality” requirements for creating completing new carbon reductions, know the required length of participation and how long the carbon reductions must remain in place, understand how carbon reductions will be verified and certified, be aware of data ownership rights, and review legal remedy provisions.  That’s a lot!  Read more about each of these recommendations in our blog post on “Considering Carbon Farming?”

I want to replace an old line fence.  Can I remove trees along the fence when I build the new fence?   No, unless they are completely on your side of the boundary line.  Both you and your neighbor co-own the boundary trees, so you’ll need the neighbor’s permission to remove them.  You could be liable to the neighbor for the value of the trees if you remove them without the neighbor’s approval, and Ohio law allows triple that value if you remove them against the neighbor’s wishes or recklessly harm the trees in the process of building the fence.  You can, however, trim back the neighbor’s tree branches to the property line as long as you don’t harm the tree.  Also, Ohio’s line fence law in ORC 971.08 allows you to access up to 10 feet of the neighbor’s property to build the fence, although you can be liable if you damage the property in doing so.

I want to sell grow annuals and sell the cut flowers.  Do I need a nursery license?  No.  Ohio’s nursery dealer license requirement applies to those who sell or distribute “nursery stock,” which the law defines as any “hardy” tree, shrub, plant, bulb, cutting, graft, or bud, excluding turf grass.  A “hardy” plant is one that is capable of surviving winter temperatures. Note that the definition of nursery stock also includes some non-hardy plants sold out of the state.  Because annual flowers and cuttings from those flowers don’t fall into the definition of “nursery stock,” a seller need not obtain the nursery dealer license.

Must I collect sales tax on cut flowers that I sell?  Yes.  In agriculture, we’re accustomed to many items being exempt from Ohio’s sales tax.  That’s not the case when selling flowers and plants directly to customers, which is a retail sale that is subject to the sales tax.  The seller must obtain a vendor’s license from the Ohio Department of Taxation, then collect and submit the taxes regularly.  Read more about vendor’s licenses and sales taxes in our law bulletin at this link.

I’m an absentee landowner who rents my farmland to a tenant operator.  Should I have liability insurance on the land?  Yes.  A general liability policy with a farm insurer should be affordable and worth the liability risk reduction.  But a few other steps can further minimize risk.  Require your tenant operator to have liability insurance that adequately covers the tenant’s operations, and include indemnification provisions in your farm lease that shift liability to the tenant during the lease period.  Also consider requiring your tenant or hiring someone to do routine property inspections, monitor trespass issues, and ensure that the property is in a safe condition. 

My neighbor and I both own up to the shoreline on either side of a small lake--do I have the right to use the whole lake?  It depends on where the property lines lay and whether the lake is connected to other waters. If the lake is completely surrounded by private property and not connected to other “navigable” waters, such as a stream that feeds into it, the lake is most likely a private water body.  Both of you could limit access to your side of the property line as it runs through the lake.  You also have the legal right to make a “reasonable use” of the water in the lake from your land, referred to as “riparian rights.”  You could withdraw it to water your livestock, for example; but you cannot “unreasonably” interfere with your neighbor’s right to reasonably use the water.   The law changes if the lake is part of a “navigable” waterway.  It is then a “water of the state” that is subject to the public right of navigation.  Others could float on and otherwise navigate the water, and you could navigate over to your neighbor’s side.  Public users would not have the riparian rights that would allow them to withdraw and use the water, however, and would be trespassing if they go onto the private land along the shore.

If I start an agritourism activity on my farm, will I lose my CAUV status?  No, not if your activities fit within the legal definition of “agritourism.”  Ohio law states in ORC 5713.30(A)(5) that “agritourism” activities do not disqualify a parcel from Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) program. “Agritourism,” according to the definition in ORC 901.80, is any agriculturally related educational, entertainment, historical, cultural, or recreational activity on a “farm” that allows or invites members of the general public to observe, participate in, or enjoy that activity.  The definition of a “farm” is the same as the CAUV eligibility—a parcel devoted to commercial agricultural production that is either 10 acres or more or, if under 10 acres, grosses $2500 annually from agricultural production.  This means that land that is enrolled in the CAUV program qualifies as a “farm” and can add agritourism activities without becoming ineligible for CAUV.

Send your questions to aglaw@osu.edu and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.  Also be sure to check out our law bulletins and the Ag Law Library on https://farmoffice.osu.edu, which explain many of Ohio’s vast assortment of agricultural laws.

Ants and aphids on a plant stem.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, February 04th, 2022

Did you know that ants are the only creatures besides humans that will farm other creatures?  It’s true.  Just like we raise cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens in order to obtain a food source, ants will do the same with other insects.  This is particularly true with aphids.  Ants will protect aphids from natural predators and shelter them during heavy rain showers in order to gain a constant supply of honeydew.

Like an ant, we have done some heavy lifting to bring you the latest agricultural and resource law updates.  We start with some federal cases that deal with the definition of navigable waters under the Clean Water Act, mislabeling honey products, and indigenous hunting rights.  We then finish with some state law developments from across the country that include Georgia’s right to farm law and California’s Proposition 12.  

Supreme Court to review navigable waters definition under the Clean Water Act.  The Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case of an Idaho couple who have been battling the federal government over plans to build their home.  Chantell and Mike Sackett (“Plaintiffs”) began construction on their new home near Priest Lake, Idaho but were halted by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).  The EPA issued an administrative compliance order alleging that Plaintiffs’ construction violates the Clean Water Act.  The EPA claims that the lot, on which the Plaintiffs are constructing their new home, contains wetlands that qualify as federally regulated “navigable waters.”  Plaintiffs are asking the Court to revisit its 2006 opinion in Rapanos v. United States and help clarify how to determine when a wetland should be classified as “navigable waters.”  In Rapanos, the Court found that the Clean Water Act regulates only certain wetlands, those that are determined to be “navigable waters.”  However, two different tests were laid out in the Court’s opinions.  The Court issued a plurality opinion which stated that the government can only regulate wetlands that have a continuous surface water connection to other regulated waters.  A concurring opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, put forth a more relaxed test that allows for regulation of wetlands that bear a “significant nexus” with traditional navigable waters.  Justice Kennedy’s test did not take into consideration whether there was any surface water connection between the wetland and the traditional navigable waters.  In the lower appellate court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test to uphold the EPA’s authority to halt Plaintiffs’ construction.  Now, Plaintiffs hope the Supreme Court will adopt a clear rule that brings “fairness, consistency, and a respect for private property rights to the Clean Water Act’s administration.”  

SueBee sued for “bee”ing deceptive.  Sioux Honey Association Cooperative (“Defendant”) finds itself in a sticky situation after Jason Scholder (“Plaintiff”) brought a class action lawsuit against the honey maker for violating New York’s consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the company’s honey products marketed under the SueBee brand.  Plaintiff claims that the words “Pure” or “100% Pure” on the Defendant’s honey products are misleading and deceptive because the honey contains glyphosate.  Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the class action lawsuit and a federal district court in New York granted Defendant’s motion in part and denied it in part.  Defendant asked the court to find that its labels could not be misleading as a matter of law because any trace amounts of glyphosate in the honey is a result of the natural behavior of bees interacting with agriculture and not a result of Defendant’s production process.  However, the court declined to dismiss Plaintiff’s mislabeling claims.  The court concluded that a reasonable consumer might not actually understand that the terms “Pure” or “100% Pure” means that trace amounts of glyphosate could end up in honey from the bees’ foraging process.  The court also declined the Defendant’s request to dismiss Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim because of the alleged misrepresentations of the honey.  However, the court did dismiss Plaintiff’s breach of express warranty claim and request for injunctive relief.  The court dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of express warranty claim because Plaintiff failed to notify Defendant of its alleged breach of warranty, as required by New York law.  Plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief was also dismissed because the court could not find any imminent threat of continued injury to Plaintiff since he has now learned that the honey contains trace amounts of glyphosate.  The court ordered the parties to proceed with discovery on Plaintiff’s remaining claims, keeping the case abuzz.

Indigenous Hunting Rights.  Recently, two members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation (“Northwestern Band”) were cited for hunting on Idaho lands without tags issued by the state.  The Northwestern Band filed suit against the state of Idaho declaring that its members possessed hunting rights pursuant to the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 (the “1868 Treaty”).  The 1868 Treaty provided that the Shoshone Nation agreed to permanently settle on either Fort Hall Reservation, located in Southeastern Idaho, or Wind River Reservation, located in Western Wyoming.  By agreeing to settle on one of the two reservations, the Shoshone Nation was granted hunting rights on unoccupied lands of the United states.  However, the Northwestern Band ended up settling in Northern Utah and not on one of the two named reservations.  After considering the 1868 Treaty, the Federal District Court of Idaho dismissed Northwestern Band’s lawsuit.  The court held that the hunting rights contained in the 1868 Treaty were tied to the promise to live on one of the reservations, and that a tribe cannot receive those hunting rights without living on one of the appropriate reservations.  Thus, the court found that because the Northwestern Band settled in Northern Utah and not on one of the reservations, the hunting rights of the 1868 Treaty did not extend to the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.  

Tensions rise over Georgia’s Freedom to Farm Act.  A few days ago, Georgia lawmakers introduced legislation that seeks to further protect Georgia farmers from nusiance lawsuits.  House Bill 1150 (“HB 1150”) proposes to change current Georgia law to protect farmers and other agricultural operations from being sued for emitting smells, noises, and other activities that may be found offensive by neighboring landowners.  Georgia’s current law, which became effective in 1980, does provide some protection for Georgia farmers, but only from neighboring landowners that have moved near the farm or agricultural operation after the current law went into effect.  All neighboring landowners that lived near the farming operation prior to the current law going into effect have retained their right to sue.  HB 1150, on the other hand, will prevent these nuisance lawsuits by all neighboring landowners, as long as the farm or agricultural operation have been operating for a year or more.  Passing a right to farm law has proven to be difficult in Georgia.  In 2020, House Bill 545, also known as the “Right to Farm bill” failed to pass before the final day of the 2019-2020 legislative session. Private landowners, farmers, and their supporters, are divided on the issue and seek to protect their respective property rights. It doesn't look like HB 1150 will have the easiest of times in the Georgia legislature. 

Confining California's Proposition 12.  Meat processors and businesses that sell whole pork meat in California (collectively the “Petitioners”) have delayed the enforcement of California’s Proposition 12 (“Prop 12”), for now.  Prop 12 is California’s animal confinement law that has sent shockwaves across the nation as it pertains to raising and selling pork, eggs, and veal.  Last week, the Superior Court for Sacramento County granted Petitioners’ writ of mandate to delay the enforcement of Prop 12 on sales of whole pork meat.  Petitioners argue that Prop 12 cannot be enforced until California has implemented its final regulations on Prop 12.  To date, California has yet to implement those final regulations.  California, on the other hand, suggests that final regulations are not a precondition to enforcement of Prop 12 and the civil and criminal penalties that can be brought against any farmer or business that violates Prop 12.  The court disagreed.  The court found that the language of Prop 12, as voted on by California residents, explicitly states that California voters wanted regulations in place before the square-footage requirements of Prop 12 took effect.  Therefore, the court granted Petitioners’ writ of mandate to prevent the enforcement of Prop 12 until final regulations have been implemented.  The court’s writ will remain in effect until 180 days after final regulations go into effect.  This will allow producers and businesses to prepare themselves to comply with the final regulations.  Opponents of Prop 12 believe this is another reason why the Supreme Court of the United States should review California’s Proposition 12 for its constitutionality.  

Grain bins with colorful sunset clouds
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, January 28th, 2022

We’ve quickly reached the end of January, and several of the legal issues I’ve talked about in OSU’s “Agricultural Outlook” meetings have surfaced this month.  If the current pace keeps up, 2022 promises to be a busy year for agricultural law.  Here’s a review of three legal issues I predict we’ll see that have already begun to emerge in 2022.

Water, water.  From defining WOTUS to addressing Lake Erie water quality, water law will continue to be everywhere this year.  The U.S. Supreme Court just announced on January 24 that it will hear the well-known case of Sackett v EPA to review whether the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used the proper test to determine whether wetlands are “waters of the United States” (WOTUS).  The case is one example of the ongoing push-pull in the WOTUS definition, which establishes waters that are subject to the federal Clean Water Act. The Biden administration proposed a new WOTUS rule last December that would replace the Trump-era rule, and comments remain open on that definition until February 7.  Ohio has wrangled with its own water issues, particularly with agricultural nutrient impacts on water quality.  We’ll see this year if the state will continue to rely on H2Ohio and similar incentive-based programs and whether the Ohio EPA will face additional litigation over its development of a Total Maximum Daily Load for Lake Erie.

Pesticide challenges.  The EPA announced a new policy on January 11 to more closely evaluate potential effects of pesticide active ingredients on endangered species and critical habitats.  That was the same day the agency re-registered Enlist One and Enlist Duo pesticides, but with new label restrictions and prohibited use in hundreds of counties across the U.S., including a dozen Ohio counties.  An EPA report documenting dicamba damage in 2021 could form the basis for yet another lawsuit this year demanding that EPA vacate dicamba’s registration.   Meanwhile, we await a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it will review Hardeman v. Monsanto, one of dozens of cases awarding damages against Monsanto (now Bayer) for personal injury harms caused by glyphosate.

Opposition to livestock production practices.  Ohio pork producers watching California’s Proposition 12 will be happy with a recent California court decision prohibiting enforcement of one part of the law that went into effect on January 1.  The provision requires any pork and eggs sold in the state to be from breeding pigs and laying hens that are not raised in a “cruel manner,” meaning that the animals have a certain amount of usable pen space.  The California court agreed with grocers and other retailers that the law could not be enforced on sales of pork meat because the state hasn’t yet finalized its regulations. The law could be subject to further scrutiny from a higher court.  Several agricultural organizations have unsuccessfully challenged the law as a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, but one of those cases currently awaits a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it will review the case.  Other livestock production issues we’ll see this year include continued battles over Right to Farm laws that limit nuisance lawsuits against farms, and challenges to “ag gag” laws that aim to prevent or punish undercover investigations on farms.

There’s more to come.  Watch for more of our predictions on what 2022 may bring to the agricultural law arena in upcoming posts. Or drop into one of our Agricultural Outlook and Policy  meetings to hear my Ag Law Outlook.  As quickly as the year is moving, we’ll soon know how many of those predictions are correct.

Turkey looking straight into camera.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

Did you know that female turkeys can lay a fertilized egg without mating?  This process is called parthenogenesis, a type of asexual reproduction that can also occur in other types of animals including invertebrates, fish, and lizards.  In turkeys, this process always produces a male chick.  The likelihood of an embryo from parthenogenesis surviving to chick-hood is small, but possible.  

In this edition of the Ag Law Harvest and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are thankful for the opportunity to present to you the newly proposed definition of “waters of the United States”, Kansas’s battle to protect agricultural facilities, and food labeling cases from across the country.  

EPA and Army Corps of Engineers propose rule to establish the definition of “waters of the United States.”  The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers announced proposed rule to return the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) to the pre-2015 definition with a few updates to reflect Supreme Court decisions.  In 2020, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule went into effect and interpreted WOTUS to include: “(1) territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; (2) tributaries of such waters; (3) certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and (4) wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters (other than jurisdictional wetlands).”  On January 20, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 13990 directing all executive agencies to review and address any federal regulations that went into effect during the previous administration. After reviewing the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule, the agencies determined that the rule is significantly reducing clean water protections.  The new rule proposed by the agencies seeks to interpret WOTUS to include: (1) traditional navigable waters; (2) interstate waters; (3) the territorial seas and their adjacent wetlands; (4) most impoundments of WOTUS; (5) tributaries to traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, the territorial seas, and impoundments, that meet either the relatively permanent standard of the significant nexus standard; (6) wetlands adjacent to impoundments and tributaries, that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard; and (7) “other waters” that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard.  The agencies will be taking comment on the proposed rule for 60 days once the rule is published in the Federal Register.  

Kansas Attorney General asks Supreme Court to review Kansas “Ag Gag” Law.  Derek Schmidt, Attorney General of Kansas, has asked the United States Supreme Court to review the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act (the “Act”) which criminalizes the unauthorized access to agricultural facilities without consent of the owner of the facility with the intent to damage the business of the facility.  Under the Act, consent is not effective if it is “[i]nduced by force, fraud, deception, duress or threat.”  Earlier this year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Kansas law to be unconstitutional by violating the free speech clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and prohibited Kansas from enforcing the Act.  Now, Derek Schmidt has petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Kansas law arguing that the Act does not violate the First Amendment because the Act regulates conduct not speech.  The Attorney General goes on to argue that even if trespass by deception were to be considered a form of speech, it is a form of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.  The Attorney General reasoned that the Act protects a private property owner’s right to exclude and that the First Amendment does not provide a license to violate a person’s property rights.   

Oklahoma’s meat labeling law on trial.  Earlier this month, the Plant Based Foods Association and the Tofurky Company (“Plaintiffs”) filed an amended complaint challenging Oklahoma’s Meat Consumer Protection Act (the “Act”) alleging that the Act violates the dormant commerce clause, the due process clause, and the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution.  Plaintiffs allege that the Oklahoma law “institutes a protectionist trade barrier” that is contrary to and preempted by federal law.  According to Plaintiffs, the Act “forbids plant-based meat producers from using meat terms unless they include a disclaimer on their product labels in the same type size and prominence to the ‘name of the product’ that their plant-based products are not actually meat derived from animals.”  Plaintiffs argue that the Oklahoma law would require plant-based meat producers to develop Oklahoma specific labels or abandon the Oklahoma market which is essentially interfering with interstate commerce and in violation of established federal law. This case is set for trial in 2022.  But, this is not the first time the Oklahoma law has been challenged on constitutional grounds.  Plant Based Foods Association and Upton’s Naturals Company also filed suit alleging the Oklahoma law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.  However, a Federal District Court in Oklahoma denied an injunction to prevent Oklahoma from enforcing the law.  The court found that the disclosure requirement in the Act is reasonably related to Oklahoma’s interest in preventing the confusion or deception of consumers.  The court reasoned that the commercial speech at issue could potentially be misleading to reasonable consumer.  The court argued that “the possibility of deception flowing from the use of meat-related terms for the plant-based products is self-evident from the natural inference a consumer would draw from the meat-related terms used.”  This not the end of the battle for the Oklahoma law, there will likely be appeals to higher courts to help settle the dispute. 

Pepperidge Farm sued over “Golden Butter” cracker label.  Hawa Kamara decided to file a lawsuit against Pepperidge Farm, Inc. after purchasing “Golden Butter” crackers at a local Target store in New York. According to the ingredients list attached to Kamara’s complaint, the crackers were made with butter but also included vegetable oils.  Kamara asserted that the presence of vegetable oils makes the “Golden Butter” packaging misleading and/or deceptive because a reasonable consumer would conclude the crackers were “all or predominantly made with butter.”  A Federal District Court in New York, however, did not find the packaging misleading or deceptive.  The court reasoned that “the packaging accurately indicated that the product contained butter, and the ingredients list confirmed that butter predominated over other oils and fats.”  Further, the court argued that a reasonable consumer could believe the “Golden Butter” labeling described the product’s flavor and not the ingredient proportions.  Ultimately, the court decided to dismiss the case against Pepperidge Farm because Kamara’s complaint did not plausibly allege that the “Golden Butter” packaging materially misrepresented the ingredients in the crackers.  

 

Thank you for reading and we hope that everyone has a happy and safe Thanksgiving!! 

Blue sturgeon swimming in river.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Friday, November 12th, 2021

Did you know that white sturgeon are North America’s largest fish?  The largest white sturgeon on record was caught in 1898 and weighed approximately 1,500 pounds. Sturgeon is the common name for the species of fish that belong to the Acipenseridae family. The largest sturgeon on record was a Beluga sturgeon weighing in at 3,463 pounds and 24 feet long.  Talk about a river monster!  Swimming right along, this edition of the Ag Law Harvest brings you some intriguing election results from across the country, pandemic assistance for organic producers, and a lesson in signatures. 

Maine first state to have “right to food.”  Earlier this month, Maine voters passed the nation’s first “right to food” constitutional amendment.  The referendum asked voters if they favored an amendment to the Maine Constitution “to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.”  Supporters of the new amendment claim that the amendment will ensure the right of citizens to take back control of the food supply from large landowners and giant retailers.  Opponents claim that the new amendment is deceptively vague and is a threat to food safety and animal welfare by encouraging residents to try and raise their own products in their backyards without any knowledge or experience.  The scope and legality of Maine’s new constitutional amendment is surely to be tested and defined by the state’s courts, but until then, Maine citizens are the only ones the in the United States that can claim they have a constitutional right to food.  

New York voters approve constitutional environmental rights amendment.  New Yorkers voted on New York Proposal 2, also known as the “Environmental Rights Amendment.”  The proposal passed with overwhelming support.  The new amendment adds that “[e]ach person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment” to the New York constitution.  New York is one of a handful of states to have enacted a “green amendment” in its state constitution.  Proponents of the amendment argue that such an amendment is long overdue while opponents argue that the amendment is too ambiguous and will do New York more harm than good. 

USDA announces pandemic support for certified organic and transitioning operations.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) announced that it will be providing pandemic assistance to cover certification and education expenses to agricultural producers who are currently certified or to those seeking to become certified.  The USDA will make $20 million available through the Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (“OTECP”) as part of the USDA’s Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative. OTECP funding is provided through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”).  Producers can apply for expenses paid during the 2020, 2021, and 2022 fiscal years.  For each fiscal year, OTECP will cover 25% of a certified operation’s eligible certification expenses, up to $250 per certification category.  Crop and livestock operations transitioning to organic production may be eligible for 75% of eligible expenses, up to $750 for each year.  Both certified organic operations and transitioning operations are eligible for 75% of eligible registration fees, up to $200, per year for educational events to help operations increase their knowledge of production and marketing practices.  Applications are now open and will be available until January 7, 2022.  Producers can apply through their local Farm Service Agency office.  For more information on OTECP visit https://www.farmers.gov/pandemic-assistance/otecp.    

A signature case.  In 2018 Margaret Byars died intestate survived by her 5 children.  After Byars’s death, one her sons, Keith, revealed that Margaret had allegedly executed a quitclaim deed in 2017 giving her Dayton home to Keith.  The other siblings brought this lawsuit claiming that the deed was invalid and unenforceable because the facts surrounding the execution of the deed seemed a little odd.  In 2017, Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer and moved into a nursing facility.  Shortly after entering the nursing home, Sophia Johnson, a family friend and the notary on the deed, showed up to notarize the quitclaim deed.  Trial testimony revealed that the quitclaim deed was prepared and executed by a third party.  Margaret did not physically sign the deed herself.  In fact, the trial court noted that the signature looked like the handwriting of the person that prepared the deed and that no one saw Margaret authorize another to sign the deed for her.  Sophia testified that when she showed up to notarize the deed, the deed was already completed and signed.  Sophia also testified that Margaret seemed to intend to transfer the house to Keith and understood the nature and consequences of the deed.  After hearing all the testimony, the trial court concluded that the deed was enforceable, and the house belonged to Keith.  However, on appeal, the Second District Court of Appeals found the deed to be invalid.  The Second District stated that in Ohio a grantor need not actually sign a deed in order to be valid, however, the court concluded that the “signature requirement may be satisfied by another affixing a grantor’s signature on a deed so long as the evidence shows that the grantor comprehend the deed, wanted its execution, and authorized the other to sign it.”  The court concluded that the evidence showed that Margaret comprehended the deed and perhaps even wanted its execution.  But the evidence did not show that Margaret authorized anyone to sign the deed for her.  Because it could not be established that Margaret authorized the preparer or anyone else to sign the deed for her, the Second District court held that that deed was invalid under Ohio law.  This case demonstrates the importance of attorneys and the work they do to make sure all asset transfers and estate planning documents are in compliance with the law to help avoid unnecessary lawsuits and prevent any unintended outcomes.

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