USDA

Cicada on the stalk of a plant.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, June 18th, 2021

Did you know that a housefly buzzes in the key of F?  Neither did I, but I think the musical stylings of the Cicada have stolen the show this summer. 

Aside from Mother Nature’s orchestra, federal agencies have also been abuzz as they continue to review the prior administration’s agencies’ rules and regulations.  This week’s Ag Law Harvest is heavily focused on federal agency announcements that may lead to rule changes that affect you, your farm or business, or your family.

USDA issues administrative complaint against Ohio company.  The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) issued an administrative complaint on May 4, 2021,  against Barnesville Livestock LLC (“Barnesville”) and an Ohio resident for allegedly violating the Packers and Stockyards Act (“P&S Act”).  An investigation conducted by the AMS revealed that the Ohio auction company failed to properly maintain its custodial account resulting in shortages of $49,059 on July 31, 2019, $123,571 on November 29, 2019, and $54,519 on December 31, 2019.  Companies like Barnesville are required to keep a custodial account under the P&S Act.  A custodial account is a trust account that is designed to keep shippers’ proceeds from the sale of livestock in a secure and centralized location until those proceeds can be distributed to the seller.  According to the AMS, Barnesville failed to deposit funds equal to the proceeds received from livestock sales into the custodial account. Additionally, Barnesville reported a $15,711 insolvency in its Annual Report submission to AMS.  Operating with custodial account shortages and while insolvent are both violations of the P&S Act.  The AMS alleges that Barnesville’s violations place livestock sellers at risk of not being paid fully or completely.  If Barnesville is proven to have violated the P&S Act in an oral hearing, it may be ordered to cease and desist from violating the P&S Act and assessed a civil penalty of up to $28,061 per violation.  

USDA to invest $1 billion as first investment of new “Build Back Better” initiative.  The USDA announced that it will be investing up to $1 billion to support and expand the emergency food network so food banks and local organizations can serve their communities.  Building on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA looks to enter into cooperative agreements with state, Tribal, and local entities to more efficiently purchase food from local producers and invest in infrastructure that enables organizations to more effectively reach underserved communities.  The USDA hopes to ensure that producers receive a fair share of the food dollar while also providing healthy food for food insecure Americans.  This investment is the first part of the USDA’s Build Back Better initiative which is focused on building a better food system.  Build Back Better initiative efforts will focus on improving access to nutritious foods, address racial injustice and inequity, climate change, and provide ongoing support for producers and workers.

Colorado passes law changing agricultural employment within the state.  On June 8, 2021, Colorado’s legislature passed Senate Bill 87, also known as the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will change how agricultural employees are to be treated under Colorado law.  The bill removes the state’s exemption for agricultural labor from state and local minimum wage laws, requiring agricultural employers to pay the state’s $12.32/hour minimum wage to all employees.  Under the new law, agricultural employees are allowed to organize and join labor unions and must also be paid overtime wages for any time worked over 12 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.  The bill also mandates certain working conditions including: (1) requiring Colorado’s department of labor to implement rules to prevent agricultural workers from heat-related stress, illness, and injury when the outside temperature reaches 80 degrees or higher; (2) limiting the use of a short-handled hoe for weeding and thinning in a stooped, kneeling, or squatting position; (3) requiring an agricultural employer give periodic bathroom, meal, and rest breaks; and (4) limiting requirements for hand weeding or thinning of vegetation.  Reportedly, Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis, is eager to sign the bill into law. 

Wildlife agencies release plan to improve Endangered Species Act.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) have released a plan to reverse Trump administration changes to the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  The agencies reviewed the ESA following President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which directed all federal agencies to review any agency actions during the Trump administration that conflict with the Biden-Harris administration objectives.  The agencies look to reverse five ESA regulations finalized by the Trump administration which include the FWS’ process for considering exclusions from critical habitat designations, redefining the term “habitat,” reinstating prior regulations for listing species and designating critical habitats, and reinstating protections under the ESA to species listed as threatened.  Critics of the agencies’ plan claim that the current administration’s proposals would remove incentives for landowners to cooperate in helping wildlife.  

EPA announces intent to revise the definition of “waters of the United States.”  On June 9, 2021, the EPA and the Department of the Army (the “Agencies”) announced that they intend to change the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”), in order to protect the nation’s water resources.  The Agencies’ also filed a motion in a Massachusetts federal court requesting that the court send the Trump administration’s Navigable Water Protection Rule (“NWPR”) back to the Agencies so they can initiate a new rulemaking process to change the definition of WOTUS.  In the motion, the Agencies explained that pursuant to President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, they have reviewed the necessary data and determined that the Trump administration’s rule has led to significant environmental harm.  The Agencies hope to restore the protections that were in place prior to the 2015 WOTUS rule.  According to the EPA, the Agencies’ new regulatory process will be guided by: (1) protecting water resources and communities consistent with the Clean Water Act; (2) the latest science and the effects of climate change on the nation’s waters; (3) practical implementation; and (4) the experience and input of the agricultural community, landowners, states, Tribes, local governments, environmental groups, and disadvantaged communities with environmental justice concerns.  The EPA is expected to release further details of the Agencies’ plans, including opportunity for public participation, in a forthcoming action.  To learn more about WOTUS, visit https://www.epa.gov/wotus.

Close up of beef cow.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, June 04th, 2021

As planting season draws to a close, new agricultural issues are sprouting up across the country.  This edition of the Ag Law Harvest brings you federal court cases, international commodity news, and new program benefits affecting the agriculture industry. 

Pork processing plants told to hold their horses.  The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) is not going to appeal a federal court’s ruling that requires the nation’s hog processing facilities to operate at slower line speeds.  On March 31, 2021, a federal judge in Minnesota vacated a portion of the USDA’s 2019 “New Swine Slaughter Inspection System” that eliminated evisceration line speed limits.  The court held that the USDA had violated the Administrative Procedure Act when it failed to take into consideration the impact the new rule would have on the health and safety of plant workers.  The court, however, only vacated the provisions of the new rule relating to line speeds, all other provisions of the rule were not affected.  Proponents of the new rule claim that the rule was well researched and was years in the making.  Further, proponents argue that worker safety was taken into consideration before adopting the rule and that the court’s decision will cost the pork industry millions.  The federal court stayed the order for 90 days to give the USDA and impacted plants time to adjust to the ruling.  All affected entities should prepare to revert to a maximum line speed of 1,106 head per hour starting June 30, 2021. 

Beef under (cyber)attack.  Over the Memorial Day weekend, JBS SA, the largest meat producer globally, was forced to shut down all of its U.S. beef plants which is responsible for nearly 25% of the American beef market.  JBS plants in Australia and Canada were also affected.  The reason for the shut down?  Over the weekend, JBS’ computer networks were infiltrated by unknown ransomware.  The USDA released a statement showing its commitment to working with JBS, the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and others to monitor the situation.  The ransomware attack comes on the heels of the Colonial Pipeline cyber-attack, leading many to wonder who is next.  As part of its effort, the USDA has been in touch with meat processors across the country to ensure they are aware of the situation and asking them to accommodate additional capacity, if possible.  The impact of the cyber-attack may include a supply chain shortage in the United States, a hike in beef prices at the grocery store, and a renewed push to regulate other U.S. industries to prevent future cyber-attacks. 

Texas has a new tool to help combat feral hogs.  Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, announced a new tool in their war against feral hogs within the state.  HogStop, a new hog contraceptive bait enters the market this week.  HogStop is being released in hopes of curbing the growth of the feral hog population.  According to recent reports, the feral hog population in Texas has grown to over 2.6 million.  It is estimated that the feral hogs in Texas have been responsible for $52 million in damage.  HogStop is an all-natural contraceptive bait that targets the male hog’s ability to reproduce.  HogStop is considered a 25(b) pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”), which allows Texas to use it without registering the product.  Commissioner Miller thinks HogStop is a more humane way to curb the feral hog population in Texas and hopes that it is the answer to controlling the impact that feral hogs have on farmers and ranchers.  More information about HogStop can be found at their website at www.hogstop.com

USDA announces premium benefit for cover crops.  Most farmers who have coverage under a crop insurance policy are eligible for a premium benefit from the USDA if they planted cover crops this spring.  The USDA’s Risk Management Agency (“RMA”) announced that producers who insured their spring crop and planted a qualifying cover crop during the 2021 crop year are eligible for a $5 per acre premium benefit.  However, farmers cannot receive more than the amount of their insurance premium owed.  Certain policies are not eligible for the benefit because those policies have underlying coverage that already receive the benefit or are not designed to be reported in a manner consistent with the Report of Acreage form (FSA-578).  All cover crops reportable to the Farm Service Agency (“FSA”) including, cereals and other grasses, legumes, brassicas and other non-legume broadleaves, and mixtures of two or more cover crop species planted at the same time, are eligible for the benefit.  To receive the benefit, farmers must file a Report of Acreage form (FSA-578) for cover crops with the FSA by June 15, 2021.  To file the form, farmers must contact and make an appointment with their local USDA Service Center.  More information can be found at https://www.farmers.gov/pandemic-assistance/cover-crops.

Federal court vacates prior administration’s small refinery exemptions.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order vacating the EPA’s January 2021 small refinery exemptions issued under the Trump administration and sent the case back to the EPA for further proceedings that are consistent with the Tenth Circuit’s holding in Renewable Fuels Association v. EPA.  The Tenth Circuit held that the EPA may only grant a small refinery exemption if “disproportionate economic hardship” is caused by complying with Renewable Fuel Standards. The EPA admitted that such economic hardship may not have existed with a few of the exemptions granted and asked the court to send the case back to them for further review.  The order granted by the Tenth Circuit acknowledged the agency’s concession and noted that the EPA’s motion to vacate was unopposed by the plaintiff refineries.  

Michigan dairy farm penalized for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System violations.  A federal district court in Michigan issued a decision affirming a consent decree between a Michigan dairy farm and the EPA.  According to the complaint, the dairy farm failed to comply with two National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits issued under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act.  The violations include improper discharges, deficient maintenance and operation of waste storage facilities, failing to report discharges, failing to abide by its NPDES land application requirements, and incomplete recordkeeping.  The farm is required to pay a penalty of $33,750, assess and remedy its waste storage facilities, and implement proper land application and reporting procedures.  The farm also faces potential penalties for failing to implement any remedial measures in a timely fashion.  

By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, May 21st, 2021

It’s that time of year again.  A time full of excitement and hope.  Kids and students are eagerly waiting for that final bell to ring, releasing them into weeks of freedom and fun.  Some are celebrating with their closest loved ones as they prepare to embark on their next journey.  And lastly, some parents have circled a certain fall date for when things return back to normal.  It is finally nice to see hope, joy, and excitement return to our lives.  These past 18 months have been a real wake-up call, and by no means is it over, but the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.  This past week has also been abuzz with interesting agricultural and resource issues.  This edition of the Ag Law Harvest brings you some interesting lawsuits, reports, and initiatives from across the country affecting agriculture and the environment. 

USDA expands aquaculture disaster assistance.  The USDA has announced a policy change that makes food fish and other aquatic species eligible for the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees and Farm-raised Fish Program (ELAP).  Previously, only losses of farm-raised game and bait fish were eligible under ELAP.  Under the program, eligible producers can receive financial assistance for losses due to disease and certain severe weather events.  To be eligible, losses must have occurred on or after January 1, 2021.  The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is waiving the requirement to file a notice of loss within 30 calendar days for farm-raised fish and other aquatic species death losses that occurred prior to June 1, 2021.  Producers must still provide records to document any eligible losses.  The deadline to file an application for payment for the 2021 program year is January 31, 2022.  The USDA also announced that it will purchase up to $159.4 million in domestically produced seafood, fruits, legumes, and nuts for distribution to domestic food assistance programs in order to address disruptions in the food production and supply chains resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Oregon ballot initiative seeks to redefine animal cruelty.  Supporters of Oregon Initiative Petition 13 (“IP13”) have succeeded in meeting their first requirement to putting their proposed law on the 2022 Oregon ballot.  IP13 seeks to amend the definition of what constitutes animal cruelty and who can be punished.  Oregon, like many other states, does have an animal cruelty law that prohibits individuals from unnecessarily harming animals.  Additionally, Oregon’s current law specifically exempts certain practices from being assumed to be animal abuse (activities like farming, breeding livestock, hunting, fishing, wildlife management practices, rodeos, slaughter, and scientific or agricultural research).  However, IP13 seeks to remove all the above listed exemptions and would make it a crime to engage in those types of activities.  IP13 only exempts individuals that harm an animal because the animal posed an immediate risk of danger and veterinarians.  Supporters of IP13 claim that no one should be above the law and should be held accountable for any and all animal abuse and neglect.  Opponents of IP13 fear that if the initiative passes and becomes law, Oregon’s animal agriculture industry will be destroyed.  Opponents argue that IP13 makes common farming practices like breeding and slaughtering livestock for food, illegal.  If supporters of IP13 continue to collect signatures and meet the required thresholds, IP13 will be voted on by the citizens of Oregon in 2022. 

Indiana passes law to purchase locally grown food from youth agricultural education programs.  Indiana’s governor signed a bill into law that allows schools to purchase up to $7,500 worth of food from youth agricultural education programs.  The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Steve Davisson, was born after local Indiana FFA students were raising hogs and growing hydroponic lettuce to sell to their school cafeteria but hit a roadblock because of state laws and requirements.  House Bill 1119 provides an avenue for local youth agricultural programs to sell to their respective school districts and not compete against wholesale distributors.  Rep. Davisson hopes the program will expand into other Indiana schools to give students practical agricultural experience and potentially launch students into a career in agriculture.  

Federal lawsuit about USDA’s RFID tags for cattle dismissed.  Last month we reported that farmers and ranchers from South Dakota and Wyoming filed a lawsuit against the USDA and its subagency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”), for improperly using advisory committees to create new rules in violation of federal law.  Well, last week a Wyoming federal court dismissed the complaint against the USDA and APHIS.  The court concluded that APHIS did not “establish” the Cattle Traceability Working Group (“CTWG”) or the Producer Traceability Council (“PTC”) as advisory councils to create the RFID tag rules.  The court also found that the advisory groups were completely private and consisted of cattle industry representatives, showing that APHIS did not “establish” these advisory groups.  Additionally, the court held that APHIS did not “utilize” or control the actions of the advisory groups.  The court reasoned that the advisory groups and APHIS were working on parallel tracks to achieve the same goal, preventing and tracing animal disease for livestock moving across state lines, and that APHIS only provided input to the advisory groups.  The court held that the USDA and APHIS were not in violation of federal law because the advisory groups were not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  As it stands, the USDA and APHIS have rescinded their July 2020 notice that RFID tags would be required for cattle crossing state lines. However, attorneys and interest groups representing the farmers and ranchers in the Wyoming case still fear that APHIS and the USDA will use the information provided by these advisory groups to implement an “unlawful mandate” in the future.  

South Dakota farmer suing the USDA over a mud puddle?  On May 05, 2021, Arlen and Cindy Foster filed a federal lawsuit in South Dakota claiming that the USDA has improperly identified a mud puddle in the middle of their farm field as a federally protected wetland and that the Swampbuster Act violates the U.S. Constitution.  Under the Swampbuster Act, farmers that receive USDA benefits cannot produce crops on or around a federally protected wetland or they risk losing all federal agriculture benefits.  The Fosters contend that Arlen’s father planted a tree belt in 1936 to help prevent soil erosion which is now causing snow to accumulate under the tree belt producing a puddle in the field when the snow melts.  The Fosters argue that this makes the puddle in their field an unregulated “artificial wetland” and is not subject to the Swampbuster Act or the USDA’s control.  Additionally, the Fosters claim that the Swampbuster Act violates the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that the federal government cannot regulate the Fosters’ alleged wetland.  The Fosters reason that if their puddle should be considered a wetland, any regulation of that wetland should come from the state of South Dakota, not the federal government.   

Hawai’i man fined over $600,000 for pouring poison into Paahe’ehe’e Stream.  Hawai’i’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (“BLNR”) fined a Hilo resident $633,840 for pouring poison into a North Hilo stream and causing the death of an estimated 6,250 Tahitian prawns.  North Hilo has a history of individuals using poison to harvest Tahitian prawn.  DLNR, in conjunction with other natural resource protection entities, are continuously concerned with the impact that the poison will have on the local wildlife and environment.  The $633,840 fine is the largest in BLNR history and advocates hope that it is a step in the right direction to let illegal fishers know that Hawai’i is committed to prosecuting individuals that engage in harmful environmental practices to the full extent of the law in order to protect Hawai’i’s natural resources. 

Montana man sentenced to prison for cattle theft.  A ranch manager has been sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay back $451,000 after pleading guilty to wire fraud and to selling cattle that he did not own.  The Montana man was a ranch manager at Hayes Ranch in Wilsall, Montana from 2008 to 2017 and also started his own cattle company in 2015.  When the owners of Hayes Ranch were out of town, the ranch manager began stealing cattle from his employer and selling them as if they were his own.  The ranch manager was ordered to repay his former employer $241,000 for the stolen cattle.  Additionally, the ranch manager was ordered to pay Northwest Farm Credit Services over $200,000 for selling cattle that he pledged as collateral for loans obtained from the lender.  

The return of the U.S. Jaguar?  Environmental groups and scientists recently published a paper urging U.S. wildlife managers to consider reintroducing jaguars to the American Southwest.  Advocates argue that reintroducing jaguars to the region is essential to species conservation and restoration of the ecosystem.  In July 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a jaguar recovery plan as required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.  While the recovery plan does not call for the reintroduction of jaguars into the Southwest region of the U.S., federal officials have been increasingly focused on sustaining habitat, eliminating poaching, and improving public acceptance for jaguars that naturally make their way across the U.S.-Mexico border.  The southwest region of the U.S. makes up 1% of the jaguar’s historic range but is suitable for sustaining the big cat.  Jaguar sightings have been reported in the area, although very rarely.  Jaguar advocates hope that potential opposition to the reintroduction of jaguars, specifically from ranchers and rural residents, can be eased by implementing compensation programs focused on things like increased livestock deaths. 

By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, May 14th, 2021

Happy Friday! It's time for another Ag Law Harvest and in this week's edition we explore landmark court rulings, pending lawsuits, and newly enacted laws that affect agriculture and the environment from around the country. 

USDA announces $92.2 million in grants under the Local Agriculture Market Program.  The USDA announced last week that it will be funding Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) grants through the Farmers Market program as part of the USDA’s Pandemic Assistance for Producers Initiative.  Through these grants, the USDA hopes to support the development and growth of direct producer-to-consumer marketing and boost local and regional food markets.  $76.9 million will be focused on projects that support direct-to-consumer markets like farmers markets and community supported agriculture.  $15.3 million will fund public-private partnerships that will build and strengthen local and regional food markets.  All applications must be submitted electronically through www.grants.gov.  More information can be found on the following webpages: Farmers Market Promotion ProgramLocal Food Promotion Program, or Regional Food System Partnerships

Mexico Supreme Court Rules in favor of U.S. Potato Growers.  On April 28, 2021, Mexico’s highest court overturned a lower court’s decision preventing the Mexican government from implementing regulations to allow for the importation of U.S. potatoes.  The ruling comes after nearly a decade of legal battles between Mexican potato growers and their government. Beginning in 2003, Mexico restricted U.S. potato imports but then lifted the restrictions in 2014, allowing U.S. potatoes full access to the Mexican market.  Shortly after lifting the restrictions, the National Confederation of Potato Growers of Mexico (CONPAPA) sued its government claiming that Mexican regulators have no authority to determine if agricultural imports can enter the country. Since the filing of the lawsuit, the U.S. has been bound by the 2003 restrictions on U.S. potatoes entering the Mexican market.  Mexico’s Supreme Court ultimately rejected CONPAPA’s argument and ruled that the Mexican government does have the authority to issue regulations about the importation of agricultural and food products, including U.S. potatoes.  Mexico represents the third largest export market for U.S. potatoes, making this a landmark decision for U.S. potato farmers. 

Indiana enacts new wetlands law.  Indiana governor, Eric Holcomb, has approved a new controversial wetlands law.  The new law amends the requirements for permits and restoration costs for “wetland activity” in a state regulated wetland (federally protected wetlands are excluded).  Under Senate Bill 389, permits are no longer required to conduct activity in Class I wetlands, some Class II wetlands, and certain farmland.  In Indiana, Class I wetlands are either: (a) at least 50% disturbed or affected by human activity; or (b) support only minimal wildlife or hydrological function.  Class III wetlands are minimally disturbed by human activity and can support more than minimal wildlife or hydrologic function.  Class II wetlands fall somewhere in the middle.  Supporters of the law argue that the changes will reduce the cost to landowners and farmers for conducting activity in wetlands that only provide nominal environmental benefits.  Opponents of the law argue otherwise.  Some environmental groups believe that wetlands, whether they can support more than minimal wildlife or not, provide profound economic benefit by reducing the cost to citizens for water storage and water purification.  Additionally, environmental groups argue that the subsequent loss of wetlands from this law will greatly increase flooding and erosion and reduce Indiana’s diverse wildlife.  Some even suggest that this law is nothing more than a subsidy for the building and housing development industry.  Senate Bill 389 became law on April 29, 2021, and has a retroactive effective date of January 1, 2021. 

USDA being sued for promotion of meat and dairy industry.  Three physicians have filed a lawsuit against the USDA in a federal court in California.  The doctors, part of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), argue that some of the USDA’s new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued last December, contradict current scientific and medical knowledge.  PCRM believes that the USDA is acting out of its interests in the dairy and meat industry rather than the health interests of U.S. residents.  For example, PCRM argues that the USDA’s statement suggesting that more individuals would benefit by increasing their intake of dairy contradicts scientific evidence that increased dairy intake can increase the chances of prostate cancer and that 1 in 4 Americans is lactose intolerant.  PCRM seeks a court order requiring the USDA to delete dairy promotions, avoid equating protein with meat, and eliminate deceptive language hiding the ill effects of consuming meat and dairy products.  In an email to the Washington Post, a spokesperson for the USDA, claims that the dietary guidelines are just that – guidelines.  The USDA argues that the dietary guidelines are meant to help provide guidance based on the best available science and research and provide many alternatives for people based on an individual’s preferences and needs.

Sesame added to the list of major allergens.  On April 23, 2021, President Biden signed into law the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act.  The law requires that sesame be added to the list of major allergens and be disclosed on food labels.  Up until this law was enacted, sesame was allowed to be labeled as a “natural flavor” or a “natural spice.”  With the new law, sesame, in any form, must be labeled as an allergen on packaged foods.  Food manufacturers have until 2023 to add sesame allergen statements to their labels. This is the first time since 2006 that a new allergen has been added to the Food Allergen and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).  Sesame joins peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, dairy, eggs, and wheat as the FDA’s list of allergens that require specific labeling.  

Florida passes updated Right to Farm Law.  Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law Florida’s new and improved Right to Farm Act.  The new law adds agritourism to the definition of “farm operations” so that agritourism is also protected under Florida’s Right to Farm Law.  Additionally, Florida lawmakers have expanded the protection given to farmers under the new law by defining the term nuisance.  Under Florida’s Right to Farm Law, nuisance is defined as “any interference with the reasonable use and enjoyment of land, including, but not limited to, noise, smoke, odors, dust, fumes, particle emissions, or vibrations.” Florida’s definition of nuisance also includes all claims brought in negligence, trespass, personal injury, strict liability, or other tort, so long as the claim could meet the definition of nuisance.  This protects farmers from individuals disguising their nuisance claim as a trespass claim.  The importance of defining nuisance to include claims such as trespass can best be demonstrated by an ongoing federal lawsuit in North Carolina.  In that case, Murphy-Brown, LLC and Smithfield Foods, Inc. are being sued for having ownership in a hog farm that caused odors, dust, feces, urine, and flies to “trespass” onto neighboring properties.  North Carolina’s Right to Farm Law only protects farmers from nuisance claims, not trespass claims.  Although Murphy-Brown and Smithfield argue that the neighbors are disguising their nuisance claim as a trespass claim, the federal judge is allowing the case to move forward.  The judge found that farmers are protected from nuisance claims, not trespass claims and even if the trespass could also be considered a nuisance, the neighbors to the hog farm are entitled to seek compensation for the alleged trespass.

USDA Pandemic Assistance logo
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, April 12th, 2021

We’re used to April showers in Ohio, but this year producers can also prepare for a showering of USDA pandemic assistance.  Secretary Vilsack just announced the new “USDA Pandemic Assistance for Producers Initiative,” which will devote $12 billion to deliver financial assistance and programs for agricultural producers affected by COVID-19 market disruptions.  The USDA aims to spread those programs to a wider set of producers than previous COVID-19 programs.

While many program details and rules are still under development and expected later this spring, several types of CFAP assistance are in motion now.  First, the USDA announced the reopening of round two of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP2) on April 5.  Producers who haven’t yet signed up for CFAP2 may do so for at least the next 60 days at https://www.farmers.gov/cfap/apply.   USDA will be distributing $2.5 million in grants to further reach out to socially disadvantaged farmers who have not enrolled in CFAP2.    

Several automatically issued payments are also in the works for eligible producers already enrolled in CFAP1 and 2.  Producers need not submit new applications for these payments, and we’ve heard some producers have already received them.   The payments include:

  • Increased CFAP1 payment rates for cattle.  Cattle producers eligible under CFAP1 will automatically receive payments based on inventory of cattle between April 16, 2020 and May 14, 2020.  Rates per head will be $7 for feeder cattle less than 600 pounds, $25.50 for feeder cattle at 600 pounds or more, $63 for slaughter/fed cattle, $14.75 for slaughter/mature cattle and $17.25 for all other cattle.
  • CFAP2 crop payments.  Additional payments of $20 per acre for producers of eligible flat-rate or price-trigger crops under CFAP2, which includes Ohio crops of alfalfa, corn, hemp, sorghum, soybeans, sugar beets, wheat and other grains, listed at https://www.farmers.gov/pandemic-assistance/cfap.
  • CFAP additional assistance payments.  Formula adjustments and payments for applications filed under the CFAP AA program will include pullets and turfgrass sod, corrections for row-crop producers with non-Actual Production History insurance to use 100% of 2019 ARC-county option benchmark yield in the payment calculation, revisions to sales commodity applications to include insurance indemnities, noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program payments, and Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus payments.

The additional payments for swine producers and contract growers included in the CFAP Additional Assistance are not yet are their way.  These payments are on hold as they will require regulatory revisions, but FSA is accepting applications at https://www.farmers.gov/pandemic-assistance/cfap.

Also in the still-under-development category is an additional $6 billion for new and modified programs from the Consolidated Appropriations Act as well as other unspent COVID-19 funds.  The USDA projects that rules for these programs will also begin this Spring and will include funding for:

  • Dairy Donation Program purchases and other assistance for dairy farmers
  • Euthanized livestock and poultry
  • Biofuels
  • Specialty crops, beginning farmers and local, urban, and organic farms
  • Organic certification costs or to continue or add conservation activities
  • Other possible expansion and corrections to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program such as to support dairy or other livestock producers.
  • Timber harvesting and hauling.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other protective measures for food and farm workers and specialty crops and seafood processors and distributors.
  • Improving the resilience of the food supply chain.
  • Developing infrastructure to support donation and distribution of perishable commodities, including food donation and distribution through farm-to-school, restaurants, or other community organizations.
  • Reducing food waste.

And that’s not all.  Details for allocating an additional $500 million in new funding are also in development.  That funding will be distributed as follows:

  • $100M for Specialty Crop Block Program
  • $100M for Local Agricultural Marketing Program
  • $80M for Domestic Textile Mills Program
  • $75M for Farmers Opportunities Training and Outreach Program.
  • $75M for Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program
  • $28M for National Institute of Food and Agriculture
  • $20M for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
  • $20M for Agricultural Research Service (ARS)

The USDA has stated that it will continue to develop program details and regulations through the spring.  We’ll do our best to forecast what's to come, so stay tuned for more information on the Pandemic Assistance for Producers Initiative.

USDA NAL and National Agricultural Law Center logos

By: Ellen Essman, Thursday, March 12th, 2020

The Center for Food Safety (CFC), along with other groups and a number of organic farms, filed a lawsuit early this month claiming that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) when it allowed hydroponically-grown crops to bear the “Certified Organic” label.  In January 2019, CFC filed a legal petition asking USDA to create regulations which would ban hydroponic operations from using the organic label.  USDA denied the petition, and CFC’s current lawsuit also alleges that USDA’s denial violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  CFC asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to vacate USDA’s denial of their petition and to bar the agency from certifying any hydroponic operations as organic.  The complaint can be found here

What do “hydroponic” and “organic” mean anyway?

Many of you are probably familiar with hydroponic and organic growing, but since the terms are very important in this lawsuit, it’s worth reviewing them before we continue. 

The USDA, on its National Agricultural Library website, defines “hydroponics” as “growing plants in a nutrient solution root medium.” In other words, hydroponic plants can be grown in mediums such as sand, gravel, and water with additional nutrients.  Simply put, hydroponic plants are not grown in the soil. 

OFPA (available here) says in order to sell or label an agricultural product as “organically produced,” the product must:  1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided; (2) except as otherwise provided in this chapter and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent.  Thus, for a plant to be “organic,” it must meet these criteria. 

CFC’s argument under OFPA

In their lawsuit, CFC is principally concerned with the third part of the organic requirements listed above—that in order to be labeled as organic, an agricultural product must be “produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan.” Organic plans, in turn, must also meet a number of requirements.  One of those requirements is that the “organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” At its most basic, CFC’s argument is that fostering soil fertility is an integral and required part of the OFPA, and therefore, plants not grown in actual soil cannot meet all the requirements necessary for organic certification.  In other words, since hydroponics by definition are not grown in soil, hydroponic farmers can’t foster soil fertility.  As a result, CFC maintains that since fostering soil fertility is required in order for plants to be labeled “organic,” hydroponically-grown plants can’t be organic.  By allowing hydroponics to be labeled organic, CFC asserts that USDA is in violation of the OFPA. 

CFC’s argument under the APA

The plaintiffs also contend that USDA’s denial of their 2019 petition violated the APA. The APA (you can find the relevant chapter here) is the law that federal agencies must follow when writing and adopting regulations.  Under the APA, courts have the power to overturn agency actions if they are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or are otherwise unlawful.  Additionally, courts can overturn agency actions when they go beyond the authority given to the agency by Congress.  Here, CFC argues that USDA’s denial of their petition was arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with the law.  Basically, they are arguing that USDA violated the APA by ignoring the soil fertility language that Congress included in OFPA. 

What’s USDA’s take?

USDA’s denial of CFC’s petition gives us a little insight into what the agency’s response to the lawsuit might include.  The agency claims that the National Organic Program (NOP) has allowed hydroponic operations to be certified organic in the past.  Furthermore, USDA counters that the statutory and regulatory provisions that refer to “soil” do not require every organic plant to be grown in soil.  Instead, they say the provisions are simply “applicable to production systems that do use soil.”

The court will certainly have a lot to sift through in this lawsuit.  USDA still has to respond to the complaint, and hydroponic operations might throw their support behind the agency’s cause.  We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens and will make sure to keep you updated!

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Legalized hemp production in the U.S. took a major step forward today with the publication of the USDA’s rule establishing the “U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program.”    States and potential hemp growers have been awaiting this rule since the Farm Bill legalized hemp back in December 2018 but required that regulatory programs be established for overseeing hemp production.  Today’s hemp rule sets up the regulatory framework for state departments of agriculture, Indian tribal governments and the USDA to license producers who want to grow hemp as a commodity crop. 

What’s in the hemp rule?

The hemp rule lays out the requirements for establishing Hemp Production Plans within States or Tribal governments and creates a USDA administered licensing program for producers in areas that choose not to regulate hemp production.  Other parts of the rule include definitions, appeal provisions, and reporting requirements.  The rule also addresses the interstate transportation of hemp.  Here’s a quick summary of provisions that affect Ohioans.

Requirements for State and Tribal Hemp Production Plans.    A State or Tribe must include the following in a Hemp Production Plan that the USDA must approve before the State or Tribe can allow hemp production within its borders:

  • Plans to maintain relevant producer and land information.  A state must collect, maintain and provide USDA with contact and location information for each licensed hemp producer, including personal information about the individual or business and location information about the land where hemp is produced.
  • Plans for accurate and effective sampling and testing.  A plan must include procedures for collecting hemp flower samples; conducting sampling and testing of plants 15 days prior to any harvest; ensuring that sampling methods are reliable and represent a homogeneous composition of the sampling area; preventing commingling of plants from different sampling areas; requiring that producers are present during sampling; and allowing samplers to have unrestricted access to hemp plants and all land and facilities used for cultivating or handling hemp.
  • Procedures to accurately test THC levels in samples.  The rule lays out suggested reliable testing methods but does not establish a single, national testing procedure for determining whether a hemp plant falls beneath the 0.3 threshold for THC, the psychoactive ingredient that distinguishes hemp from marijuana.  However, a State or Tribe must use a testing lab that is registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency and must require the lab to follow testing performance standards.  The standards must include evaluation of “measurement of uncertainty,” a concept similar to determining the margin of error, and must account for the uncertainty in THC test results. 
  • Procedures for disposal of non-compliant plants.  A State or Tribal plan must prohibit any handling, processing, or entering the stream of commerce of any hemp grown in an area that exceeds the acceptable THC level and must have procedures for disposing of the plants, verifying disposal, and notifying USDA of non-compliant plants, including provision of test results to USDA.
  • Inspection procedures.  A plan must include procedures for annual inspections of random samples of licensed producers. 
  • Reporting procedures.  A plan must explain how a State or Tribe will submit all of the information and reports required by the rule, which includes monthly producer reports, monthly hemp disposal reports, and annual reports of total planted, harvested, and disposed acreage.  The plan must also require producers to report crop acreage to the Farm Service Agency.
  • Corrective action plans.  A required corrected action plan will address procedures for allowing producers to correct negligent regulatory violations such as failing to provide a legal description, failing to obtain a license, and exceeding the THC level.  The procedures must include a reasonable compliance date, reporting by the producer for two years after a violation, five years of ineligibility for producers with three negligence violations with a five-year period, and inspections to ensure implementation of corrective action plans.
  • Enforcement for culpable violations.  A plan must have procedures for reporting any intentional, knowing, willful or reckless violations made by producers to the U.S. Attorney General and chief law enforcement officers of the State or Tribe.
  • Procedures for addressing felonies and false information.  The plan must not allow a producer with a felony conviction relating to controlled substances to be eligible for a hemp license for a period of ten years from the felony conviction, and must prohibit a producer who materially falsifies information on an application to be ineligible for a license.

Plan review by USDA.  The rule states that after a State or Tribe submits a hemp plan, USDA has 60 days to approve or deny the plan.  The rule also allows USDA to audit approved state plans at least every three years. 

Interstate commerce of hemp.  The rule reiterates an important provision first mentioned in the 2018 Farm Bill: that no state can prohibit transportation of hemp or hemp products lawfully produced under an approved state plan or a USDA license.

USDA issued licenses.  A producer in a state that chooses not to regulate hemp production may apply to the USDA for a license to cultivate hemp.  The USDA’s sets forth its licensing program requirements in the rule, which are similar to provisions for State and Tribal Hemp Production Plans.

Effective date:  today

It’s important to note that the USDA published the rule as an “interim final rule” that becomes effective upon its publication in the Federal Register, which is today, October 31, 2019.  Federal law allows an agency to forego the typical “notice and comment” period of rulemaking and publish a final rule if there is good cause for doing so.  USDA explains that good cause exists due to Congress’s interest in expeditious development of domestic hemp production, critically needed guidance to stakeholders who’ve awaited publication of the hemp rule, previous outreach efforts, and the public’s interest in engaging in a new and promising economic endeavor.  The immediacy of USDA’s rule allows the agency to begin reviewing State and Tribal Hemp Production Plans now, in hopes that producers will be able to plant hemp for the 2020 growing season.   USDA is seeking public input on the interim final rule for the next sixty days, however, and plans to consider such comments when it replaces the interim final rule with a “final rule” in two years time.

Is Ohio ready?

While Ohio’s Department of Agriculture (ODA) won’t be the first in line to have its hemp production program reviewed under the new USDA program, Ohio won’t be too far behind the twenty states and tribes that are already awaiting review.  ODA proposed Ohio’s hemp regulations earlier this month after the General Assembly decriminalized hemp and authorized the agency to develop a hemp program in July of this year via Senate Bill 57.  The USDA rule comes just one day after ODA closed the comment period on the proposed rules, which we summarize here.  Once ODA publishes the final hemp regulations, it can proceed to submit Ohio’s Hemp Production Plan to the USDA for approval.  Ohio’s timing may prove beneficial, as ODA now has the opportunity to review the USDA rule and ensure that Ohio’s plan will meet the federal requirements.  

Our comparison of Ohio’s hemp laws and regulations to the USDA’s hemp rule indicates that Ohio is well prepared to meet the hemp rule requirements.  Only a few provisions in the federal rule may require additional attention by Ohio before ODA submits its plan for USDA approval.  Key among those are procedures for THC testing methods (technical details not included in Ohio’s proposed regulations) and procedures for corrective action plans (which are not clearly laid out in the proposed regulations but are addressed in Senate Bill 57).  One potential conflict between the federal and Ohio rules regards destruction of hemp plants that exceed the allowable 0.3 THC level.  The federal rule prohibits any further handling, processing or entering into the stream of commerce of any hemp plants from the sampling area and requires disposal of non-compliant plants, while Ohio’s regulations allow bare hemp stalks for fiber that is free of leaf, seed and floral material to be harvested, processed and used while all other material from plants that exceed 0.3 THC must be destroyed.    We’ll soon see how ODA handles these and other issues when it submits Ohio’s Hemp Production Plan for USDA approval.

Read the interim final rule on “Establishment of a Domestic Hemp Production Program” here, which is also the site for submitting comments on the rule.  USDA will accept public comments until December 30, 2019.

By: Evin Bachelor, Friday, May 24th, 2019

When you don’t want to move, you don’t want to move.  That’s the message being sent to Secretary Perdue and the leadership of the USDA by employees of the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), who recently voted to unionize 138 to 4.

ERS produces research on agriculture and rural economies that is used by policymakers in determining where to prioritize federal money, personnel, and attention.  Many universities and agricultural organizations also utilize the data in their own research.  Economists and statisticians make up a large portion of ERS’s staff.

The vote comes after months of tension over the fate of ERS.  USDA leaders have been seriously discussing moving the headquarters of ERS closer to the farms and rural areas that it is charged with researching, and away from D.C.  Recently the USDA announced that locations in Indiana near Purdue University, in Kansas City, and in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region have been selected as potential relocation sites.  However, many ERS staffers have been vocal about not wanting to move away from D.C., either for personal reasons or to protect the prestige of the office within the USDA.

Further, Secretary Perdue had announced plans last year to place the service directly under the USDA’s chief economist, which would put ERS more directly under the watch of administrators appointed by President Trump.  Some staffers have expressed concerns that such a move could increase the pressure to analyze data in a particular way, and reduce the service’s independence.

According to news interviews, as conversations among the higher level administrators became more serious, many ERS employees felt that they did not have much say in the matter.  This sense of helplessness triggered many employees to want to unionize, while some employees have already left in pursuit of other jobs.

The right of most federal employees to unionize is protected under federal law, but the preliminary vote was not the final stop in the process.  The vote to unionize had to be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Authority, which governs public-sector labor relations.  The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already begun to represent the roughly 200 workers at ERS.  AFGE represents approximately 700,000 employees of the federal government and of the District of Columbia, with just under half of those members paying dues.  AFGE is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which is the nation’s largest federation of labor unions.

The formation of a union does not mean that ERS employees will be able to prevent the changes being proposed at the administrative level.  However, it increases the likelihood that ERS employees have a seat at the decision table as a united group.  This desire to have a united front and collectively bargain is one of the traditional purposes of forming a union.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week that farmers.gov will now feature two new tools.  One will help farmers navigate the application process for obtaining temporary agricultural workers under H-2A, and the second will help farmers understand and manage their USDA-backed farm loans.  The press release explained that the USDA values the experience of its customers, and that it developed these tools after hearing feedback on the need for simple, technology based resources to help farmers.  Unveiled in 2018, farmers.gov allows users to apply for USDA programs, process transactions, and manage their accounts.

Customized H-2A checklists based on the needs of an individual farmer

Many farmers need seasonal or temporary workers for planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops.  The seasonal nature of agriculture can make it difficult for farmers to find an adequate supply of domestic labor willing to fill the temporary positions.  To relieve this difficulty, the federal government created the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program to allow these farmers to hire workers from foreign countries to supplement the domestic labor market on a temporary or seasonal basis.  Farmers must demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. workers able, willing, qualified, and available for the temporary work, and that the H-2A workers will not result in reduced wages for other U.S. workers.

Understanding the H-2A process has long been complex and confusing, but a new tool focused on education for smaller producers includes a revamped website and an interactive checklist tool.  The new website explains the basics of the program, includes an interactive checklist tool to create custom checklists, and gives an estimate of the costs of hiring H-2A workers.

The interactive checklist tool is a helpful way for producers to learn about the steps they need to take to obtain the labor that they need.  In the past, websites would rely heavily on producers to sift through information and determine the requirements that they needed to follow.  Now, the interactive tool asks questions one at a time to generate a custom checklist. 

When using the tool, producers will first be asked whether this will be their first time hiring workers using the H-2A Visa Program.  If the producer answers yes, they will be asked when they need the labor.  If the producer answers no to the first question, they will be asked whether they are extending the contract of workers that they are currently employing.  Ultimately, the producer will be asked when they need the labor.  At the end of the questions, the tool will provide a checklist that the producer will use to determine what steps he or she needs to take to obtain H-2A labor.  The checklists are designed to be easy to understand and to make the process less confusing.

View information about your USDA-backed farm loan online

The USDA offers farm ownership and operating loans through the Farm Services Agency to family-size farmers and ranchers who cannot obtain commercial credit.  Farmers.gov now allows producers to view information about these USDA-backed farm loans through a secure online account.  Producers can view loan information, history, and payments from a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone.  Producers will need to sign up for a USDA online account in order to create an account profile with a password.

At this time, the program only allows producers doing business on their own behalf as individuals to view this information through farmers.gov.  Other entities such as LLCs and trusts or producers acting on behalf of another cannot utilize this tool yet, although the USDA indicates that this is planned for in the future.

The USDA’s press release made clear that the addition of these tools represents a step toward providing better customer service and increased transparency.  As only a step, producers can expect more tools and features to be added to farmers.gov in the future.  As this happens, we will be sure to keep you up to date about the website’s new bells and whistles.

Posted In: Business and Financial, Labor
Tags: USDA, H-2A, labor law, USDA loans
Comments: 0
By: Evin Bachelor, Friday, January 11th, 2019

Written by: Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow

Welcome to 2019 from all of us at the OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program!  With a new Congress, a new Ohio General Assembly, and a new slate of leaders atop Ohio’s executive offices, we are expecting a flurry of activity in the new year.  Our resolution this year is to keep you in the know about agricultural law news, and maybe find some time to exercise.

Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:

U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear state livestock standard lawsuits.  In a previous blog post, we noted that California and Massachusetts had adopted laws that would require sellers of certain meats and eggs to follow heightened animal care standards in order to sell those products within California or Massachusetts.  Thirteen states, led by Indiana, quickly sued Massachusetts to stop its law from taking effect.  Missouri led another group of thirteen states in suing California.

Indiana and Missouri had attempted to have their cases brought directly before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court has “original jurisdiction” over claims between states.  After the states filed their arguments with the Supreme Court, the justices asked the U.S. Solicitor General whether he believed these cases were appropriate for the Court’s original jurisdiction.  The Solicitor General filed briefs in the Indiana v. Massachusetts and Missouri v. California maters, and suggested that the Supreme Court should not exercise original jurisdiction because, among other things, the states lack the proper standing to sue.  Here, this argument essentially means that the resulting harm from enforcement of the statutes would not harm the states as states, but only some of their citizens, and that those citizens may still sue California or Massachusetts for their individualized harm.

The Supreme Court took the position of the Solicitor General and denied the requests of Indiana and Missouri to have the cases brought before the Court.  Any further action will have to be taken through the lower courts.  For more information about the Missouri v. California matter as argued to the Supreme Court, click here.  For more information about the Indiana v. Massachusetts matter as argued to the Supreme Court, click here.

USDA not required to adopt Obama-era “Farmer Fair Practice Rules,” according to federal appeals court.  In December 2016, the USDA published the Farmer Fair Practices Rules as an interim final rule, and published two amendments to its rules that deal with the Packers and Stockyards Act.  The amendments addressed the ease of bringing a lawsuit for unfair and uncompetitive business practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act.  The rule was set to take effect at the end of February 2017, although the amendments were only proposals that had not fully gone through the required notice and comment process.  In early February 2017, citing the President’s regulatory freeze, and arguing that the rule would cause more litigation and confusion, the USDA postponed, and ultimately withdrew, the rule.  The USDA also did not take action on the two proposed amendments.  The Organization for Competitive Markets sued to stop the USDA from withdrawing the interim final rule, and to compel the USDA to promulgate the two amendments, arguing that the 2008 Farm Bill requires action by the USDA.

On December 21, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied the Organization for Competitive Markets’ request for review.  The court explained that the USDA did not fail to fulfill its mandate, describing Congress’s language as ambiguous.  Further, the court said that the USDA’s withdrawal of the interim final rule followed the proper notice and comment procedures.  Ultimately the court believed that Congress has been monitoring this issue and if Congress wishes for a more specific action, then Congress should act.  The court’s opinion in Organization for Competitive Markets v. USDA, No. 17-3723 (8th Cir. 2018) is available here.

Funding for National Weather Service and National Algal Bloom Program receives President’s signature.  On Monday, January 7th, President Trump signed Senate Bill 2200, which passed during the previous Congress.  The bill increases funding for the National Weather Service’s agriculture related weather monitoring and forecasting from $26.5 million in 2019 to $28.5 million by 2023.  The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will see an increase in funding from $136.5 million in 2019 to $154 million by 2023.  The bill also instructs NOAA to “plan the procurement of future data sources and satellite architectures,” essentially instructing NOAA to think about cost-effective ways to upgrade weather monitoring systems both on the ground and in space.  The National Integrated Drought Information System will also see an increase in funding from $13.5 million this year to $14.5 million by 2023.  The program is to use some of the funding to “develop a strategy for a national coordinated soil moisture monitoring network” within the next year.  Finally, the bill also reauthorizes $20.5 million each year through 2023 for relief from hypoxia or harmful algal blooms “of national significance,” which the bill defines as “a hypoxia or harmful algal bloom event that has had or will likely have a significant detrimental environmental, economic, subsistence use, or public health impact on an affected state.”  For the text of the act, visit Congress’s webpage here.


Ohio Case Law Update

  • Ohio Power Citing Board cannot extend construction certificate for wind farm by simple motion, but must follow amendment process, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.  Black Fork Wind Energy filed an application with the Ohio Power Citing Board (“the board”) to construct a wind farm in Crawford and Richland Counties in 2011, and the board approved the application in January 2012.  Black Fork had five years, until January 2017, to begin construction on the project.  The project was delayed due to a lawsuit challenging the project, and Black Fork sought an additional two years to begin construction.  The board granted Black Fork’s motion without a full application to amend and investigation.  The board argued that it regularly grants such extensions and that extensions do not amount to an “amendment” that would require an application because an extension is not “a proposed change to the facility.”  The majority of the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed, and held that the board acted improperly.  Because the commencement of construction was a term in the certificate, granting an extension amounts to an amendment in the certificate.  As such, the board should not have acted on the request without requiring an application for amendment and investigation.  The Court reversed the order and remanded the issue back for further proceedings.  Justices Fischer and O’Donnell dissented, arguing that the Court should defer to the board in how it reads “amendment” under Ohio Revised Code § 4906.07(B).  For the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion from In re application of Black Ford Wind Energy, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-5206, click here.
  • Creditors must first seek payment of unpaid bills from estate of deceased spouse before attempting to collect from a surviving spouse, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.  In Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Mr. Robert Bell received care at a nursing home operated by Embassy Healthcare.  Embassy sent a letter for collection to his wife, Mrs. Bell, six months and three days after he had passed away, but no estate for Mr. Bell had been opened.  In Ohio, creditors have six months to request an estate administrator be appointed in order to collect a debt from an estate, but Embassy did not make such a request.  Since it missed the six month statute of limitations, Embassy tried to seek collection from Mrs. Bell under Ohio’s “necessaries” law, as provided in Ohio Revised Code § 3103.03.  This law requires spouses to support their spouse with money, property, or labor if their spouse cannot do so on their own; however, the Ohio Supreme Court has said that a person is responsible for their own debts first, and that under this statute their spouse will only be liable if that person cannot pay for their debts.  In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court said that Embassy had to seek payment from Mr. Bell’s estate before it could require payment from his spouse.  Since the statute of limitations had run to bring a claim against Mr. Bell’s estate, Embassy would be unable to demonstrate that Mr. Bell’s estate could not cover his personal debts.  Therefore, Embassy would not be able to prove an essential requirement of Ohio’s necessaries law, and cannot recover from his spouse.  For the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4912, click here.
  • Trial court may determine width of easement as a question of fact, and will not be reversed by appellate court unless the evidence shows it clearly lost its way, according to Ohio Court of Appeals for the 7th District.  A property owner signed an express easement to a neighbor so that the neighbor could cross the property owner’s land to access the public road.  The written easement did not specify the width of the easement, but the neighbor cleared a path approximately 10 feet wide.  The property owner eventually sold the property, and the new owner laid gravel on the path from the public road to their garage, and the neighbor extended the gravel all the way to his own property.  Disputes later arose regarding the easement, and the neighbor sued the new property owners for breach of easement, and sought a declaration that the easement was thirty feet wide.  Ohio case law allows trial courts to establish the dimensions of an easement if the writing does not specify any dimensions if the trial court examines: 1) the language of the granting document, 2) the context of the transaction, and 3) the purpose of the easement.  The trial court found the easement to be ten feet wide.  The neighbor appealed, but the Seventh District found the trial court’s decision to be reasonable given the evidence and Ohio law.  Since the width of an easement is a question of fact, an appellate court will not reverse the trial court absent evidence that the trial court clearly lost its way given the weight of the evidence.  For the Seventh Districts’ opinion in Cliffs and Creek, LLC v. Swallie, 2018-Ohio-5410 (7th Dist.), click here.

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