The United States Supreme Court began its new term last October with the now famous wetlands case of Sackett v. U.S. EPA. The case is one in a long line of legal battles over how to define which waters are “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) that are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. We expected quiet waters for WOTUS as we awaited the Sackett decision. But we were wrong.
New EPA rule. The U.S. EPA made a big splash on January 18, when the agency published a new WOTUS rule to define which waters are WOTUS. Although the rule had been under consideration since the beginning of the Biden administration, many expected the EPA to hold off on finalizing the rule until after the Supreme Court’s Sackett ruling because that decision could affect the rule. The EPA chose not to wait, and the new rule became effective on March 20, 2023.
New litigation begins. Not surprisingly, the new WOTUS rule set off a new wave of litigation. A string of four federal lawsuits were filed in January and February of 2023 by many states and interest groups. The cases contest the validity of the rule and ask for preliminary injunctions preventing implementation of the rule while the cases are pending.
Two cases, two different outcomes. The Southern District of Texas made the first decision on the new litigation in Texas v. U.S. EPA, granting an injunction on March 19 for two of the lawsuits filed by Texas, Idaho, and the American Farm Bureau and other interest groups. The injunction prevents the rule from going into effect in Texas and Idaho. The federal district court determined the plaintiffs would expend significant resources complying with the rule although the rule was unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, creating potential irreparable harm and justifying an injunction against the rule. The Kentucky district court recent an opposite decision on March 31 in the case filed by the State of Kentucky. The Eastern District court in Kentucky v. U.S. EPA declined to issue Kentucky’s request for a preliminary injunction, concluding that because the EPA has not begun enforcing the rule in Kentucky, there is no impending injury that warrants an injunction. In both the Kentucky and Texas cases, the courts declined to issue a nationwide injunction against the new WOTUS rule.
Another injunction decision to come. Twenty four states joined together to file West Virginia v. EPA, the fourth federal lawsuit against the new WOTUS rule. Ohio is not one of the plaintiff states in the case, which challenges the rule and seeks injunctions in the states as well as a nationwide injunction. We should see a decision on the injunction request soon from the federal district court in North Dakota.
There are waves in Congress, too. Not satisfied to sit back and watch the battles over the new WOTUS rule, Congress recently took action to void the rule. Congress used its authority under the Congressional Review Act, a little-used federal law that allows Congress to invalidate an agency action. The House passed a resolution to void the rule on March 9 by a margin of 227 to 198, and the Senate voted on March 29 with 53 for and 43 against nullifying the WOTUS rule. President Biden has the power to veto the legislation, however. Neither the House nor the Senate appear to hold the two-thirds majority necessary to override a Biden veto. (UPDATE: President Biden vetoed the resolution on April 6, 2023).
Back to SCOTUS. And still, we circle back to the Sackett case and await the Supreme Court’s analysis of the proper test to use to define a “waters of the United States.” How will the ruling affect the new WOTUS rule and its litigation? Will Congress act on the Supreme Court’s ruling to establish a statutory definition for WOTUS that would preempt the EPA’s rule? As we have learned, there are more WOTUS waves yet to come.
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/.
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.
I recall sharing my concern with a professor when I was in law school: how will I ever know all the answers to legal questions? No worries, he said. You can’t know the answer to every legal question, but you do need to know how to find the answers. I think of that advice often as legal questions come across my desk.
We’ve had a steady stream of them this summer, and the questions provide a snapshot of what’s going on around the state. Here’s a sampling of questions we’ve received recently, complete with our answers—some we knew and some we had to find.
What do you know about the $500 million to be set aside at USDA for meat processors—who will administer it and what is the timeline? USDA published a notice on July 16, 2021 titled “Investments and Opportunities for Meat and Poultry Processing Infrastructure” seeking input on how to allocate the funds. The notice solicits comments on how to address challenges and increase competition in meat and poultry processing through the $500 million in infrastructure and other investments. USDA is looking at current programs, combinations of programs, and potential programs that can leverage the funds to expand and diversify meat and poultry processing capacity and make the supply chain more resilient. A review of the questions USDA raised in the notice gives a good indication of the types of programs we might see, and administration of the programs could be at both the federal and state levels. The comments are due by August 30, 2021 and USDA will review them before moving forward. It will be at least several months before decisions are made and the funds are available.
If I enroll my land in the Wetlands Reserve Program, does the land still qualify for Current Agricultural Use Valuation tax treatment? Yes. Ohio’s CAUV law allows eligible land to be assessed as agricultural land for property taxation under the CAUV formula. Eligible land is “land devoted exclusively to agricultural use.” The definition of that term is important, and the relevant section that places wetlands and other conservation practices within that definition is ORC 5713.30(A)(1(c), which states that "land devoted exclusively to agricultural use" include tracts, lots, or parcels of land with at least ten acres which “were devoted to and qualified for payments or other compensation under a land retirement or conservation program under an agreement with an agency of the federal government.” According to court cases in Ohio, wetlands enrolled in federal conservation programs fit within this term and should qualify for CAUV treatment, even wetlands used as a mitigation bank. An Ohio Attorney General opinion disagrees that a wetlands mitigation bank is a government conservation program, but that is an advisory rather than binding opinion and a mitigation bank is not the same as the federal Wetlands Reserve Program.
Are there any special requirements for a cottage food producer for selling “gluten free” or “vegan” products? Yes. You need to ensure that you meet federal regulations to use “gluten free” terminology on your cottage food label. There isn’t a label review and approval process for using the language, though, as it’s “self-policing.” You must be sure that your product does not include any gluten containing ingredients. And because low levels of gluten could result from cross contamination in your kitchen, your product must be below the tolerance level of 20 ppm of gluten. There isn’t a testing requirement to prove that you’re under 20 ppm before you sell it, but if for some reason someone challenged your product or ODA randomly sampled it, it must meet the 20 ppm standard. You can have your food lab tested if you want to have that assurance. Otherwise, you should carefully manage your kitchen to reduce cross contamination. The FDA provides the gluten free labeling rule on its website and has a helpful FAQ page also. FDA has said it will be updating the gluten free rule, but I haven’t seen anything new yet.
Vegan labeling is a lesser regulatory concern. If you use that or related terms like “animal free” on your product, federal law requires that you be “truthful and not misleading” to the consumer. There isn’t a federal or state definition of “vegan” to help with that determination, but the agencies explain the term basically as not containing any animal products. Your ingredient list should confirm any vegan or animal free claims on the product.
Are there regulations pertaining to online sales of perennial plants? Yes. The seller must obtain a nursery license from the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The type of license will depend on their type of sales. A phytosanitary certificate might also be required by the importing states where their sales will take place; ODA also handles those certificates. Additionally, the seller will need to obtain a vendor’s license from the Department of Taxation to collect and submit sales tax on the plant sales.
Does a “Scenic River” designation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources allow the agency to take my property that’s along the river? No. The language in the Scenic Rivers statute is misleading, as it states that “the area shall include lands adjacent to the watercourse in sufficient width to preserve, protect, and develop the natural character of the watercourse, but shall not include any lands more than one thousand feet from the normal waterlines of the watercourse unless an additional width is necessary to preserve water conservation, scenic, fish, wildlife, historic, or outdoor recreation values.” Without reading the entire statute, it does sound as though ODNR could be laying some type of claim to up to 1,000 feet of the lands adjacent to the river. However, further along in the statute is this language that prohibits the agency from having any authority over the private land: “Declaration by the director that an area is a wild, scenic, or recreational river area does not authorize the director or any governmental agency or political subdivision to restrict the use of land by the owner thereof or any person acting under the landowner's authority or to enter upon the land and does not expand or abridge the regulatory authority of any governmental agency or political subdivision over the area.” The designation is a declaration, and not a land claim, transfer of rights, or a taking. Additionally, my further research indicates that ODNR has never used eminent domain to take private property along a scenic river, nor does it have funding allocated from the legislature to purchase scenic river lands.
Do I need a license to make and sell egg noodles from the farm? Yes. Egg noodles don’t fall under Ohio’s Cottage Food Law, which allows you to make and sell certain low-risk “cottage foods” with little regulation or licensing requirements. Instead, producing egg noodles for sale from a home kitchen requires a home bakery registration. You obtain the registration from the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Division. It requires that you submit a request for inspection form, pass an inspection of the home, and submit a $10 fee. The inspection will confirm that walls, ceilings and floors are clean, easily cleanable and in good repair; the kitchen does not have carpeted floors; there are no pets or pests in the home; the kitchen, equipment and utensils are maintained in a sanitary condition; the kitchen has a mechanical refrigerator capable of maintaining 45 degrees and equipped with a thermometer; if the home has a private well, proof of a well test completed within the past year showing a negative test result for coliform bacteria; the food label meets labeling requirements.
Is raising and training dogs considered “animal husbandry” for purposes of d the agricultural exemption from township zoning authority? Yes. The Ohio Supreme Court held in Harris v. Rootstown Twp. that “the raising and care of dogs constitutes animal husbandry and is included in the term “agriculture” within the meaning of R.C. 519.01.” This means that the agricultural exemption in Ohio Revised Code 519.21 applies to raising and caring for dogs, and township zoning can’t prohibit the use of any lot over five acres for those purposes. The township would have limited regulatory authority over dog raising on smaller lots in some situations, though. There is often confusion among townships over how to classify dogs, and that may be because they differ from what we typically think of as “farm animals.” But the Rootstown Twp. case, along with many other appellate level cases in Ohio, confirm that dogs are to be treated the same as “livestock” for purposes of the agricultural exemption from zoning.
Can both landowners be assessed half the cost of removal of noxious weeds that are growing in a partition fence? Maybe. The Ohio line fence law does allow a township to step in and clear the fence row of noxious weeds, brush, briers and similar vegetation if a complaint is filed by one landowner against an adjacent landowner who refuses to clear the weeds. The costs for doing so are assessed back on the refusing landowner whose fence row was cleared. If the noxious weeds arise from both sides of the fence, are growing in the fence, and must be cleared from both sides of the fence, the township trustees would have the authority to assess the costs of removal back on both landowners. I’ve never heard of that happening, but it’s certainly one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations.
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.
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 Program, Local 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.