We see it time after time. Municipalities bully small, independent farmers and issue citations with the hope that the farmers will just accept their fate and pay the fee. Farmers typically have limited resources and little or no access to attorneys who can bully the government back. That is why it is so important for farmers to have the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) in their back pockets to help provide legal counseling and guidance at a moment’s notice.
Steve and Wendy of Live Station Farm in Michigan sell greens, tomatoes, and hard-to-find vegetables to high-end restaurants. They are also award-winning chefs themselves. A few years ago, they bought a five-acre parcel in southern Michigan, perfect for growing specialty crops. Unbeknownst to Steve and Wendy, their idyllic parcel was located in a dystopian township, run by a mean-spirited zoning inspector who did not cotton to outsiders and had no grasp of Michigan’s Right to Farm Act.
After years of harassment, continually trespassing on their land, issuing baseless unfiled citations, and even forging the building inspector’s signature on a threatening letter, things finally came to a head. The Township filed misdemeanor charges against Steve and Wendy for their fence and their high tunnel, which was built with the blessing of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). Steve and Wendy were facing jail time for bringing coveted, local food to market.
Then FTCLDF got involved. Suzy Israel, an FTCLDF attorney, flew out to attend the pretrial. The offer? Pay the $25 fee to obtain the permit, and the case would be dismissed. The problem? Steve and Wendy did not need a permit because they are farmers and their fence and high tunnel were exempt. Even if they paid the fee, the zoning inspector would likely find another reason to harass them, and the harassment would continue.
So FTCLDF declined the offer. The Township’s attorney said something to Suzy that struck a nerve—“Why don’t they just pay it? It’s cheaper to do that than to pay you to come back and forth to court.”
Some government agents are accustomed to bullying farmers who have limited resources and no attorneys. They know that they will win because it is a war of attrition. What farmer can fight only on principle, if the process will bankrupt them? It is almost always easier just to give in.
When the Township attorney pointed out that it’s just cheaper to pay the fee, Suzy told her that Steve and Wendy were members of FTCLDF, a national nonprofit organization, and that we intended to fully litigate the matter. The hostility from the Township attorney became palpable. Motion and trial dates were set.
Suzy filed a forty-seven-page Motion to Dismiss, based on Right to Farm principles and government misconduct. The Township attorney did not respond to the motion but instead dismissed the matter. She didn’t dismiss it because she thought Suzy’s motion had merit, but rather because it didn’t make economic sense for the Township to pay her legal fees to litigate a $25 dispute. Her terse email says it all: “[the] Township has determined that to continue with this matter is a serious waste of the taxpayer’s dollars given the extremely small fee that your clients should pay to the Township for the required permits.”
And that, my dear supporters, is why FTCLDF exists. We are often the only way that farmers can push back against bureaucratic bean counters who have no grasp of sustainable farming and who only look at the bottom line. Sometimes we can bully them back, and we do.
YOUR FUND AT WORK
Services provided by FTCLDF go beyond legal representation for members in court cases.
Educational and policy work also provide an avenue for FTCLDF to build grassroots activism to create the most favorable regulatory climate possible. In addition to advising on bill language, FTCLDF supports favorable legislation via action alerts and social media outreach.