Category Archives: Business and Financial

Ohio Ag Law Blog – Congress ups the Chapter 12 bankruptcy debt limit

Congress must be concerned about the financial state of farmers.  A bill to increase the Chapter 12 debt limit to $10 million has languished in Congress since March, but recently gained traction and passed through both houses quickly.  Congress forwarded the bill, known as the Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019, to the President after the Senate approved it late last week.  The House passed the change to Chapter 12 on July 25.

Chapter 12 allows eligible family farmers and fishermen to stay in business and reorganize their debts through a repayment plan.  The recent action by Congress more than doubles the debt limit for Chapter 12 eligibility from its current amount of $4.4 million, adjusted for inflation from the original $1.5 million limit established when Congress created Chapter 12 in 1986.  If the President signs the current bill, a family farmer or fisherman with an aggregate debt of no more than $10 million will be eligible to use the Chapter 12 bankruptcy process.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY), explained that the increase to the debt limit reflects higher land values and the growth over time in the average size of U.S. farming operations. He stressed that the changes are necessary so that farmers have additional options to manage the current farm economy, because farmers are “currently facing a fifth year of declining net farm income…. [p]rices are low, inputs are high, and current trade policies make the future unknown.”

According to the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, farmers and fishermen filed a total of 535 Chapter 12 bankruptcies from June 2018 to June 2019, up from 475 in the previous year and 482 in the 2017 period.  Ohio had nine of those cases in each of the past two years and six in 2017.  These numbers will likely continue to grow with the recent change made by Congress, as more farmers will qualify for the special protections of Chapter 12.

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Risk Management Agency moves date for harvesting cover crops on Prevented Planting acres

With many farmers in Ohio unable to plant before the Final Planting Date for crop insurance, questions are arising about planting and harvesting cover crops on those prevented planting acres.  USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) rules allow operators to plant cover crops on prevented planting acres and to hay, graze, or cut the cover crops for silage after the posted “harvest date.”  In previous years, the harvest date for cover crops was November 1.   If an operator harvested the cover crop before that date, the prevented plant payment would be reduced from 100% to 35%.

The RMA has changed the harvest date for 2019, however.  In response to reduced livestock feed supplies that will result from the loss of planted acres this year, the RMA has moved up the cover crop harvest date to September 1.  An operator who plants a cover crop after the Final Planting Date and then cuts the crop for forage on or after September 1 can still receive 100% of the prevented plant payment, even if the operator sells the forage and regardless of whether the operator planted the cover crop during or after the Late Planting Period.  The Final Planting Date in Ohio was June 5 for corn and June 20 for soybeans; the Late Planting Period ended on June 20 for corn and runs until July 15 for soybeans.  Note, too, that a cover crop that was in the ground before the Final Planting Date but was not terminated because the operator couldn’t plant the intended corn or soybean crop can also be harvested for forage on or after September 1.

The RMA’s chart below illustrates payment scenarios for cover crops planted and harvested on prevented planting acres.

Capture

Other requirements for cover crops

While the cover crop harvest date seems pretty straightforward, don’t be fooled–crop insurance provisions can be tricky.  Farmers planning to put out cover crops on prevented plant acres should work closely with their crop insurance agents to ensure that all policy provisions and documentation requirements are met.

An initial requirement is that the cover crop planted must meet the definition of an “acceptable cover crop” for crop insurance purposes.   The RMA considers an acceptable cover crop as one that is recognized by agricultural experts as agronomically sound for the area for erosion control or other purposes related to conservation or soil improvement and planted at the recommended seeding rate.  OSU agricultural experts can help provide guidance on acceptable cover crops.

Operators should also be aware that many seed licenses, particularly for bio-engineered seeds, restrict the use of the seed to grain production only.  In those situations, planting the seed for a cover crop or harvesting it for silage would violate the seed licensing contract and create a liability situation for the operator.

Additionally, note that crop insurance provisions prohibit harvesting the cover crop for grain or seed, and an operator who does so will lose all of the prevented plant payment.  The cover crop harvest can also impact other provisions, such as the farm’s Actual Production History (APH) yields.  These and other provisions highlight the importance of a close working arrangement with the crop insurance agent in order to comply with RMA’s cover crop provisions.

For RMA’s guidance on Prevented Planting Flooding, go to this page.  The site contains a comprehensive list of questions and answers on prevented planting, along with information about the 2019 cover crop provisions.

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The Roundup lawsuits: what is going on?

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

A jury recently returned a verdict awarding a California couple $2.055 billion (yes, billion) in damages after the couple alleged that the glyphosate in Roundup caused their cancer.  This is the third California jury to be convinced that the Monsanto herbicide, which was acquired by Bayer last year, caused or substantially contributed to a cancer diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  A lot has happened since we last reported on these lawsuits HERE and HERE, so it is time to look at the glyphosate lawsuits, jury verdicts, and the larger debate.

Thousands of glyphosate lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto/Bayer.  Over 13,000 cases have been filed alleging almost the same thing: that a plaintiff’s cancer was caused by the glyphosate in Roundup.  About two years ago there were only a few hundred such cases.  News stories about large jury verdicts have caught people’s attention, as have commercials that some law firms have aired to find clients for this type of litigation.  The vast majority of these cases have been brought in state courts, which have a reputation for being somewhat quicker than federal courts, but there are still over a thousand in federal courts across the country.  So far, only three of these cases have reached a jury, and all have been in California.

First California jury awarded a plaintiff $289 million.  Dewayne Johnson was a school groundskeeper who routinely used Roundup as part of his job.  He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014, and believed that his diagnosis was a result of at least two prior incidents where he was soaked with Roundup.  His lawsuit against Monsanto in California state court was chosen to be the first case to be tried before a jury because his doctors did not expect him to live for much longer.

The San Francisco jury sided with Mr. Johnson and awarded him $39 million in compensatory damages, and $250 million in punitive damages.  Compensatory damages are meant to directly compensate for harm, and can include medical expenses, lost wages, and emotional distress.  Punitive damages, on the other hand, are meant to punish the party in the wrong and deter a similar course of conduct in the future.  The judge in the case ultimately reduced the punitive damages to match the compensatory damages, leaving Mr. Johnson with a potential $78 million recovery.  However, the decision is on appeal.

Second California jury awarded a plaintiff $80 million.  Edwin Hardeman sprayed Roundup on his property for about three decades.  In 2014, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and decided to file a lawsuit two years later after learning about research connecting his form of cancer to Roundup use.  His lawsuit was the first to be heard in federal court.  This San Francisco jury awarded Mr. Hardeman $5.8 million in compensatory damages, and $75 million in punitive damages.  However, the decision is also on appeal.

Third California jury awarded the plaintiffs $2.055 billion.  The first two cases certainly sent shock waves through the news, but the size of this third jury award sent more than just shock.  The plaintiffs, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, are a California couple who were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma within four years of each other.  The jury awarded the couple $55 million in compensatory damages, along with $1 billion in punitive damages each.  Bayer has promised to appeal this decision as well.

Will the parties ultimately get these punitive damages?  It is hard to answer this question just yet, but it is likely that the punitive damages awards will be reduced.  Courts are often weary about awarding punitive damages absent bad intentions by the party being punished, and few verdicts result in a punitive damages award.  When they are awarded, there are constitutional limitations on how large the award can be.  The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a punitive damages award that exceeds a compensatory damages award by more than a single digit multiplier likely violates a party’s due process rights and is not likely to be upheld.  This means that if a punitive damages award exceeds nine or ten times the compensatory damages, courts are to look at that jury’s decision with a high level of suspicion.  However, such an award could ultimately be awarded if the evidence of bad intent merits such an award, and if such award is necessary to deter future bad acts.

Bayer’s first hope on appeal is to have the jury decisions invalidated altogether by arguing that the juries were incorrect in linking these plaintiff’s cancer to their prior use of Roundup.  In order to succeed, it must prove that the decisions of the three juries were against the “manifest weight of the evidence,” meaning that they relied too much on one pile of evidence leaning one way while ignoring a mountain of evidence going the other way.  If it can succeed on this, then it would not have to pay damages to the plaintiffs.  However, this can be a high burden for an appellant to satisfy because of our legal system’s deference to juries.  If Bayer cannot succeed on avoiding fault, it would still argue that the jury awards are excessive.

In the first case, the initial jury award had a single digit multiplier of roughly six; however, the judge viewed even that multiplier as excessive and reduced the punitive damages award to match the compensatory damages award.  In the second case, the initial jury award had a multiplier of over twelve, which could give Bayer a strong argument on appeal if it is ultimately determined that it must pay the plaintiffs.  However, Bayer is also challenging the basis of the jury’s decision on appeal.

The third case is simply on a different level.  The $2 billion in punitive damages is 36 times the compensatory damages awarded to the couple.  The trial judge may respond like the first trial judge and reduce the compensatory damages award; however, that is not a guarantee.  What is likely a guarantee is that Bayer will appeal.

Does glyphosate cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma?  This question will continue to be a debate for years, and we as attorneys are not in the best spot to make any sorts of determinations based on the scientific research.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a number of scientific studies say no; however, the World Health Organization said in 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  It was that announcement, and some research that followed, which triggered the wave of lawsuits we see today.  Bayer is using the first set of research to defend its product, while the plaintiffs are using the second set of research to attack Roundup.  The attorneys in the first three cases tried to undercut Bayer’s use of EPA and university research by arguing Monsanto had influenced the first set of research in a manner favorable to it.

For better or worse, what matters in a jury trial is less what the science says, and more what the jury believes the science says.  So far, three California juries have been convinced that there is enough science to say that glyphosate caused or contributed to the cancer of four plaintiffs.  The first non-California cases are beginning to be scheduled for later this year, including in Monsanto’s former home in St. Louis.  As of now, it remains to be seen whether the first three cases will be the outliers or the norms for the glyphosate litigation nationwide.

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Stealing Money, Honey: Case Provides Insight on How to Protect Roadside Stands from Theft

Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

A case out of the Fourth Appellate District in Gallia County serves as a lesson for farmers in Ohio who have roadside stands and sell products using the honor system.  This case involves a honey stand owned by Frederick Burdell.  He kept cash in the freezer at his stand so customers could make change for their purchases. The case, State v. Montgomery, was an appeal from the Gallipolis Municipal Court’s conviction of first-degree misdemeanor theft of honey and money from a “self-service honey stand.”

On appeal, the person convicted of theft claimed that the State of Ohio did not have enough evidence to convict her, and that her conviction was against the manifest weight of the evidence.  In other words, she argued that the State did not have enough evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she committed the crime.  The appellate court did not agree with the defendant’s argument; her conviction was upheld.  For owners of roadside stands, the most relevant part of this case may not be the legal arguments, but instead, the evidence that was provided by the owner of the honey stand.  Mr. Burdell’s surveillance setup around the honey stand helped the jury find the defendant to be guilty of theft.  Owners of roadside stands for honey and other agricultural products should take note of the tools Mr. Burdell had in place to surveil his stand, as well as what he might have done to better protect his business from theft.

The appellate court’s opinion reveals that Mr. Burdell had multiple cameras set up around the honey stand, which were able to capture footage of a car driving down the driveway and a passenger exiting the car.  From another viewpoint, a camera was able to record the defendant taking two items out of the refrigerator and all the cash from the freezer.  Another shot provided a close-up, “head to toe” view of the woman walking away.  What is more, the video captured the actions in color—so the jury was able to see the color of the car and the hair color of the thief.  The appellate court found that the video evidence was sufficient enough for the trial court to reach the decision that the defendant was the perpetrator.

Owners of roadside stands can learn from Mr. Burdell’s set-up if they want to protect themselves from theft.  Multiple color cameras placed at multiple angles around the area helped Mr. Burdell recover some of his loss from the theft.  Owners may want to test cameras to make sure they are set up at good angles.  In addition, although it is not clear from this opinion whether or not Mr. Burdell had security lights and other lighting around his stand, owners of roadside stands may want to consider the lighting around their premises—inadequate lighting might be detrimental to seeing what is happening in surveillance footage.

The trial court ultimately awarded Mr. Burdell $20 in restitution for the theft, which was the value of the honey stolen.  Mr. Burdell was not reimbursed for the money that was stolen, apparently because he could “not state…with certainty” how much money was taken from the freezer, instead he guessed it could have been up to $50.  There are certainly numerous tools roadside stand owners can use to keep track of money in their stands more accurately.  Owners can keep detailed records of what products are in their stand at any given time and their prices, so they know exactly how much money should be in the cash box at all times, even after customers make change.  Roadside stand owners can also make sure they or an employee or family member monitors the area around the stand from time to time, counts the cash, and possibly take away excess cash not needed at the site and store it in a safer place.  Essentially, any actions an owner can take to keep track of how much cash is in a stand with more accuracy could prove helpful in recovering stolen cash if they ever find themselves in a situation like Mr. Burdell.

While the theft from Mr. Burdell’s self-service honey stand was unfortunate, it may serve as a helpful reminder to farmers who own similar honey, produce, or other stands of what they can do to protect their businesses.  It is also timely information as farmers prepare for spring and summer sales from roadside stands.  For those interested in more information on the case, the full opinion is available here.

 

 

 

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USDA website revamp helps with H-2A applications and managing loans

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.

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Do I need a license for that? Vendor’s License and Sales Tax Requirements for Ohio Farmers Market Vendors

Farmers markets in Ohio continue to grow in number, and the types of vendors and products offered by those vendors have greatly diversified over the years.  Along with this growth come new questions about vendor’s licenses and the collection of sales taxes.

Many market vendors may know that traditional market items like fresh fruits and vegetables do not require a vendor’s license or the collection of sales tax.  But what about beverages, cottage foods, plants and flowers, ready to eat foods, soaps, crafts, and similar items that contribute to the success of today’s farmers markets?  Fortunately, learning about Ohio’s vendor’s license and sales tax requirements doesn’t have to be a taxing experience.

In our fresh off the press law bulletin, titled “Vendor’s Licenses and Sales Taxes at Ohio Farmers Markets,” we dive into a number of questions that farmers market vendors frequently ask us.  Specifically, we address questions such as:

  • Do vendors at a farmers market need a vendor’s license?
  • What items do not require the collection of sales tax?
  • What items do require the collection of sales tax?
  • How do I obtain a vendor’s license in Ohio?
  • Is a vendor’s license the same as a retail food establishment license?
  • What if I want to sell products in other states?
  • Can vendors include sales tax in the price of the product?

While this law bulletin covers vendor’s licenses and sales taxes fairly in depth, there is always more to learn.  The law bulletin also provides a number of links to helpful resources from the Ohio Department of Taxation and neighboring states, along with a number of references to Ohio law.

Click HERE to view our latest law bulletin.

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What We’ve Been Up To: Analyzing the Use of the Limited Liability Company for Farming Businesses

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

Sometimes you happen upon a question that you want an answer to, and the answer you find raises more questions.  That’s exactly what happened when we started examining Limited Liability Company (LLC) statutes from across the Midwest.

Originally, we wanted to determine whether there are any significant legal differences between the LLC statutes of different states.  While we may be based in Ohio, we find projects that examine how different states compare to one another on the same legal topic fascinating.  The comparisons allow us to see trends and different ideas, and we had the chance to do this in our recently completed projects on CAUV and agritourism.

Ultimately we found the Midwestern states to have functionally similar LLC statutes, with about half of the Midwest having adopted a uniform statute.  When a state adopts a uniform statute, it intends for its law on a given topic to match those of other states with the same uniform statute.  There are other examples of these like the Uniform Commercial Code, Uniform Probate Code, and more.  Uniform codes are designed to make it easier for people to do business and live their lives across state lines.  For Midwestern LLC statutes, even in states that have not adopted a uniform statute, the key elements are still very similar.  The statutes have filing procedures for creating the entity, default rules for operating agreements, and rules that govern LLCs in general.

When we answered our questions about the state statutes, we became curious about some of the benefits offered by using an LLC instead of some other business form.  We found that LLCs offer great liability protection, with some specific limitations such as the application of piercing the veil from corporate law.  Further, pass through taxation can provide great tax benefits and avoid double taxation.  Since states allow operating agreements to be highly customizable, LLCs also provide a flexible entity structure that may be adapted to suit the needs of a business or family.

That last word led us to another question: what benefits does the LLC structure offer a family farm in its estate and business transition plan?  The previous three benefits are well known and thoroughly discussed; however, this last one, while done a lot in practice, is not commonly mentioned in academic writing.  Ultimately, the benefits in estate and transition planning come from the flexible nature of the operating agreement.

How can LLCs be helpful in an estate and business transition plan for a farm?  Here’s a few ways:

  • Restrict the transfer of an ownership interest through rights of first refusal and buy-out provisions
  • Restrict membership and voting power of non-family members
  • Transition equity ownership more easily than in a corporation
  • Transition the business in relative privacy

Once we learned about these benefits, the question arose of how common farming LLCs now are.  Using data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, we found that by 2012, there were almost as many farms organized as LLCs as there were farms organized as corporations, while the vast majority of farms remained owned outright by individuals with no formal legal entity.  We are waiting for the next Census of Agriculture to spot any trends, because 2012 was the first year that farms were asked to identify whether they were organized as LLCs.

Throughout the paper, we made some observations and predictions for what we expect to see in the future.  We are also history buffs, so of course there had to be a section on the origins of the LLC, and why Wyoming was the first state to adopt an LLC statute.  It is an interesting and dramatic history that we had not heard about before.

Our project examining farm LLCs is available on our OSU Extension Farm Office website HERE, as well as the National Agricultural Law Center’s website HERE.  This material is based upon work supported by the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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