Category Archives: Contracts

Protecting Interests in a Verbal Farm Lease Situation

Peggy Kirk Hall, Asst. Professor, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

A written lease is a valuable tool to use in a farm lease situation, but many farm lease arrangements never progress beyond a conversation and a handshake.    A written lease brings certainty to the farming arrangement by laying out important terms such as lease duration, notice of termination, payment provisions and conservation practices. Verbal farm leases are risky; problems can arise with legal enforceability and disputes over rights and obligations.  For those dealing with a verbal lease agreement, here are a few strategies for protecting interests in the verbal farm lease situation.

Put the verbal lease in writing.  The first recommendation is no surprise; attorneys have long encouraged farmers to use written farmland leases rather than relying on verbal agreements.  But many landowners and tenants are uncomfortable using a written lease, for a variety of reasons.  Consider the following concerns and recommendations for addressing them:

  • “We’ve always operated on a verbal agreement and a handshake.”  Transitioning from a long-time verbal agreement to a written lease can be awkward and uncomfortable, and the landowner or tenant farmer who wishes to make the change may be uncertain about how to introduce the change.  To address an awkward transition, consider using a third party to “intervene” and facilitate the process of converting to a written agreement.  Have a farm manager, attorney or accountant explain the reasons for moving to a written agreement and begin the process of discussing lease terms.  Provide the other party with ample time to respond and to consider its own concerns and suggested lease terms.
  • “We don’t want everyone to know the terms of our lease.”  Landowners and tenants often express concern that a written farm lease must be recorded in the county recorder’s office, thus revealing private terms such as the price paid for the lease.  In this case, the parties may utilize a provision under Ohio law referred to as the “memorandum of lease.”  Ohio Revised Code section 5301.251 allows the parties to record a shortened form of the farmland lease.  The only provisions the parties must include in a recorded memorandum of lease are the names and addresses of the landowner and tenant, the date of executing the agreement, a description of the leased property, the starting date and duration of the lease and any rights of renewal or extension.   With the recorded memorandum of lease, there is public notice that the lease exists but key terms remain confidential between the landowner and tenant.  The parties can include a term in the written lease verifying their agreement to execute and record a memorandum of lease rather than recording the entire lease.
  • “A written lease is overwhelming or too much detail.”  It is true that farmland leases can be lengthy and detailed, although attorneys usually have sound reasons for drafting detailed leases.   Note that the parties can make a gradual transition.  Even a simple lease or a checklist can bring certainty to the relationship by outlining key obligations or providing resolutions if problems arise in the future.  Additionally, there are many good resources that simplify and explain farm lease provisions, and a few good “model” leases for reference.  For helpful resources, visit the website http://aglease101.org .

Pay attention to lease payments and possession.  If the parties can’t convert a verbal lease to a written lease, be aware that one problem with a verbal lease is that it’s not clear when the lease agreement actually begins.  In the event of a dispute, Ohio courts often look to factors such as possession and lease payments to determine the term of the lease.  Two indicators that a farm lease agreement is in place are possession of the property by the tenant coupled with acquiescence by the landowner, or a lease payment made by the tenant and accepted by the landowner.  Both parties should be mindful of these important actions and should maintain records to document these occurrences.

Address financial fairness.  Determining the payment amount for a farm lease is a challenging task, particularly when the farm economy is in flux.  Disagreement over the lease price can quickly end a verbal farm lease relationship.   Thorough research and equitable approaches can maintain the lease relationship by ensuring a financial arrangement that is responsive to the market and fair to both parties.   OSU’s Farm Management website at http://aede.osu.edu/programs-and-research/osu-farm-management contains data on farmland values and cash rental rates.  Consider a flexible cash lease to accommodate economic changes; information on flexible cash leases is also available through OSU’s Farm Management website and at http://www.aglease101.org.

Maintain records of the lease relationship.  Good records that document the leasing history can help establish a “course of dealing” between the parties.  While a written farm lease is preferable, a record of how the parties managed the lease or handled issues in the past can be a useful point of reference for ensuring consistency in the relationship.  If there is litigation over the lease, a court might rely on proof of the parties’ course of dealing to help resolve an issue.  Both parties should maintain thorough records of payments, agreements, farm management practices, soil sampling, nutrient applications, improvements and any other facts or data that establish the details of the leasing relationship.

Maintain communication.   Don’t underestimate the power of good communication between the leasing parties.  A landowner can provide a tenant with valuable certainty by keeping the tenant informed on potential changes with land ownership or financial management.  Tenants can keep a landowner apprised of the condition of the farm property by providing reports on a regular basis, especially in the case of an absentee landowner or a crop share lease.  A report that includes pictures and a brief summary of improvements made,  management practices adopted or crop share calculations may go a long way toward ensuring a solid leasing relationship.

A written and comprehensive farm lease is a valuable tool for farmland owners and tenant farmers alike; those who still rely on verbal farm leases should carefully consider making a transition to a written lease.  Parties that continue to use a verbal farm lease face legal and financial risks, but can adopt some practices to help protect the verbal farm lease situation.  For resources and examples of written farm leases, see http://aglease101.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Contracts, Crop Issues, Property

Guest Blog: Vomitoxin in Corn – Legal Ramifications for Producers and Buyers

Thanks go to my colleague Robert Moore for  submitting our first guest blog and sharing the following expertise on the issue of vomitoxin detection in corn.

by Robert Moore, Attorney, Wright Law Company, LPA

Ohio and other areas of the Corn Belt have seen unusually high levels of vomitoxin in corn.  Vomitoxin is a mycotoxin that can cause livestock to reduce feed intake and reduce weight gain.  Some elevators and ethanol plants have been rejecting corn that has tested too high for vomitoxin.  What legal standing do producers with rejected corn have?

Producers with a Contract                       

Producers who have a contract with a buyer must look to the contract to determine their rights.  All provisions, including any small print on the back of the contract, must be read entirely before assessing legal rights.  The language of the contract is what matters; any verbal agreements made outside the contract have very little effect in enforcing legal rights.  Even if the producer and buyer agree to certain terms, if the terms do not find their way onto the contract then the parties are probably not bound by the terms.

In regards to Vomitoxin, the key terms are those describing the quality of the corn required to be delivered.  Grain contracts will include at least the bare minimum “No.2 Yellow Corn” requirement.  No. 2 Yellow corn is a grade established by the USDA and may have up to 5% damaged kernels.  The USDA defines damaged kernels as “kernels and pieces of corn kernels that are badly ground-damaged, badly weather-damaged, diseased, frost-damaged, germ-damaged, heat-damaged, insectbored, mold-damaged, sprout-damaged, or otherwise materially damaged.”  Therefore, if the only grade standard in the contract is No. 2 Yellow Corn, a producer’s corn should not be rejected or discounted solely for Vomitoxin unless more than 5% of the kernels are diseased.  However, corn could likely be rejected if 3% of the kernels were diseased with Vomitoxin and another 3% were damaged in another manner.  The 5% threshold is the accumulation of all damaged kernels and not just a single type of damage.

Some contracts will include more restrictive grade terms such as “must be suitable to be fed to livestock” or “must meet all FDA guidelines”.  The FDA has established a 5 part per million (ppm) threshold for hogs and 10 ppm threshold for cattle and poultry.  Therefore, an elevator that requires corn to meet FDA standards or to be safe for livestock consumption can reject corn if it has more than 5 ppm vomitoxin.  It is important to note that corn could have less than 5% damaged kernels but have more than  5 ppm vomitoxin.  That is, the USDA No.2 Yellow Corn grade is a completely different standard that the FDA’s ppm standard.  Ethanol plants must be extra concerned with vomitoxin becoming concentrated in the distillers grain by-product and may have even more restrictive terms than FDA.

Producers that have corn rejected can have the dual problem of having corn rejected and still being obligated to fulfill the contract.  A worse case scenario would see a producer not being able to sell his corn due to high vomitoxin levels while still being required to fulfill his contract obligations for untainted corn with the elevator.  Local reports indicate that elevators have been letting producers out of their contracts if their corn has been rejected for vomitoxin but this could change at any time.

Producers without Contracts

A producer who intends to sell a load of corn to the elevator without a contract has very little legal protection from the corn being rejected.  The elevator is under no obligation to buy the corn and can simply opt not to buy the corn for any reasonable reason.  Without a contract, the elevator is not bound to any predetermined grade standards.  Even the smallest amount of vomitoxin in the corn could cause it to be rejected.

Disputed Grain Samples

Producers have the right to appeal the grain grading determination performed by the elevator.  The Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) oversees grain grading procedures and methods and also provides inspection and appeal services.  A producer who disputes the elevator’s grading can send a sample to FGIS and FGIS’ determination will be binding on both parties.  A FGIS office is located in Toledo.  For more details and information on grading appeals, contact FGIS at 419- 893-3076‎.

Crop Insurance

Some crop insurance policies cover Vomitoxin damage. It is best to have the corn checked by an adjuster while still in the field to avoid tainted corn from being mixed with untainted corn in bins.  Many producers have opted to not file a claim due to the significant impact on APH.  They would rather maintain a higher APH than to file a marginal crop insurance claim.  The deadline for any claims on vomitoxin was December 25, 2009.  In the future, a producer’s crop insurance agent should be contacted at the first sign of Vomitoxin to ensure that all claim procedures are property followed.

Future Implications

Will we see grain contracts move away from the USDA No.2 Yellow Corn standard and towards the FDA ppm standard for vomitoxin and other mycotoxins?  Elevators relying on the USDA standard could get stuck buying corn that exceeds the FDA’s ppm standards.  Unless blended with non-tainted grain, this grain would seemingly be unmarketable as it could not be used for human consumption, livestock consumption, and/or export. Producers should anticipate possible changes to grading standards in contracts offered by elevators and other buyers.  A careful reading of all new grain contracts should be a must for producers to make sure they fully understand the quality and grade of grain they are expected to deliver to the buyer.

Robert Moore is an attorney with Wright Law Co. LPA in Dublin, Ohio, www.wright-law.net.  E-mail:  rmoore@wright-law.net

Leave a comment

Filed under Business and Financial, Contracts, Crop Issues