The legal roundup: ag law questions from across Ohio
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.