by Jerry Carter
Starting a business, running a farm and managing a farmers’ market are all complex endeavors. Each pursuit comes with its own myriad of legal hitches that can be daunting for someone who is also responsible for the day-to-day operation of a farm, restaurant or business.
There is a lot of helpful information out there however, and the Internet has helped to bring that information right to our fingertips. Unfortunately, it can be hard to sift through all of that information and find the stuff that is really important. This is where the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) at Vermont Law School (VLS) comes in. CAFS has developed a new web portal called Farm and Food Legal Resources. This new portal brings all of the legal resources about food and farming that are scattered throughout the web under one roof. The website is still in its early stages, but CAFS is working to build it out in order to create a one-stop site for legal and policy information about agriculture and food systems.
The site seamlessly breaks down materials into different sections, each tailored to a different stakeholder. There is a link for consumers, farmers, physicians, attorneys and others. Each link brings people to the information that is specifically directed at and tailored for them.
The portal is part of CAFS’ larger mission to enhance the public’s access to agricultural and food legal resources. CAFS, which is just in its first full year of existence, is still trying to find its footing. Faculty and students involved with CAFS are busy immersing themselves in the food movement, searching for areas with the greatest need and places that their expertise can have the largest impact.
“The beginning of the center involves a self-education where we’re setting aside our own backgrounds and getting a deeper understanding of food system issues,” said Jamie Renner, an assistant professor at VLS and the person in charge of directing the CAFS’ legal clinic.
VLS has managed to compile quite the team to run the CAFS program. This team, led by Laurie Ristino and Laurie Beyranevand has an extensive background working in agriculture and food systems. “Before joining VLS,” according to the VLS website, “Ristino was a senior counsel with the Office of the General Counsel, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, DC.” Ristino and her team hope to shape the next generation of food and agriculture law and policy experts right here in Vermont. Their scope and aspirations go far beyond Vermont, however. The CAFS program is training students to be leaders in the field throughout the nation and on the international stage.
They are doing this not by confining students to the classroom and firing a never ending barrage of torts and contract terms at them, but by giving them real world experience. The barrage comes too, but CAFS strives to give its students the real world experience to be successful not only in the classroom and on the bar exam, but in the real world.
The legal market is saturated right now. Simply put, there are more lawyers than are needed. VLS is hoping that CAFS can help solve this problem by creating new markets for attorneys in helping farmers, food providers and entrepreneurs grow and manage the ever-growing food market.
Farmers’ markets, CSAs, organic producers and consumers are continually being forced to deal with an increasing number of regulations, food labels and the likes. VLS hopes to train its future attorneys to help manage these growing needs. As the local and organic food movements expand, managers and organizers routinely run into organizational dilemmas. VLS is training the next generation of legal experts to help these people dot all of their “i’s” and cross all of their “t’s.”
The mission of CAFS, exemplified in its staff and realized in the projects that they are undertaking, is to prepare future attorneys to not only assist in furthering the local and organic food movements, but to become partners with the people on the ground. CAFS is trying its hand at this by partnering with the National Farmers Market Association and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA) to help farmers’ market managers across the country develop a national template for developing bylaws, managing expansion and establishing the markets themselves.
The farmers’ market project is a five-year project that is still in the early stages, but throughout the process, CAFS will partner with local farmers’ markets here in Vermont and the region to gain hands-on insight into the needs of the markets.
This project, like all CAFS projects, is individually funded by an outside grant. By operating in this way, the CAFS program has been able to start up and operate at a significantly lower cost to VLS than if the law school had to front all of the money. CAFS hopes to eventually become self-sustaining and economically independent, but they are content with seeking out both financial and research partners until they are able to do so.
CAFS, itself born of an anonymous grant, hopes to one day become financially independent by creating its own sources of funding. “For example,” said Renner, “we are working on a food labeling project.”
This food labeling project, spearheaded by Laurie Beyranevand, hopes to help better inform consumers about the many food labels they are confronted with when they go into the grocery store. Eventually, as the project develops, Beyranevand and her team are exploring the possibility of making it an app that they could sell at a fair cost to consumers. That way, when shoppers go into the store they will be able to simply scan an item with their phone and quickly access the legal meanings of all that stuff on the container.
The goal is that this app will be able explain all of the health claims that are often plastered to products; state what the manufacturer and producer have to disclose, and what they do not; and what, if any, part of the product is regulated. Renner said, “We are interested in partnering with scientists and nutritionists to help decode ingredients.” Whether it is through this app or any number of future projects that CAFS hopes to take on, their goal is to improve access to information and healthy food.
In light of some legislators’ fears that Vermont could face a lawsuit if the state passes a law that mandates products containing GMOs be labeled, I asked Renner if CAFS took risks like this into account with projects like their food labeling project, which could have a similar backlash from food producers.
“Truth is a defense to defamation. We will never shy away from speaking the truth about food.” Renner replied. He doesn’t think the CAFS labeling project will face the type of resistance that GMO labeling is likely to receive. “We are just saying from a legal perspective what kind of category a statement fits into. When I say what they [health claims] mean and what they don’t mean, those are legal issues. They are not opinions.”
CAFS does not plan to shy away from issues. “We feel very comfortable because we are pushing out information that I think is legally sound and true,” said Renner. Renner and CAFS hope to continue this effort and are determined to help push the food movement forward.