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"Civil Eats" featured Haub Law Professor Margot Pollans and the Pace Food and Beverage Law Clinic in "Farmers Can’t Afford the Legal Help They Need. These Lawyers Are Mobilizing to Change That."

05/17/2018

"Civil Eats" featured Haub Law Professor Margot Pollans and the Pace Food and Beverage Law Clinic in "Farmers Can’t Afford the Legal Help They Need. These Lawyers Are Mobilizing to Change That."

Corbin Hill Food Project founder Dennis Derryck believes that food justice depends on land justice, which is why he’s taking 95 acres of upstate New York farmland his organization owns and “turning it over to the community.” In the process, he’s tackling big, philosophical questions: “Who is the community? What should the land be used for? Shouldn’t the community itself answer that question?”

To make the project work, however, he also needed to ask some more mundane, practical questions, like: “What kind of legal structures exist for collective ownership?” Normally, Derryck says he would have pieced together ad-hoc legal advice, since Corbin Hill could not afford an attorney. But this time, he turned to a team of law students at the Pace Food and Beverage Law Clinic.

“They spent considerable time with us really helping us understand things like rules and regulations,” recalls Derryck. “They said, ‘We love what you want to do, but you’ve got to hear about all the things you’ll have to deal with,’”—like land easements and non-profit governance structures.

The clinic is the central piece of the Pace-NRDC Food Law Initiative, a program launched in 2015 in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York City, to provide small farmers, food producers, and food activists with pro bono legal services. It’s also educating a new generation of food lawyers on the day-to-day legal issues that producers outside the industrial food system face.

“Legal services are a key part of the infrastructure for a sustainable regional food economy,” says Margot Pollans, the initiative’s faculty director.

While the clinic is the first law school initiative of its kind, it’s part of larger movement to make attorneys and legal information accessible to small farmers and food producers, who often end up trying to navigate complex issues—including labor policies, food safety regulations, contracts, and land transfers—on their own.

In addition to the Pace-NRDC initiative, The Legal Food Hub launched in Massachusetts in 2014 and now connects producers with pro bono lawyers throughout New England. And organizations like the Sustainable Economies Law Center and Farm Commons, along with other university law clinics, produce free legal guides and toolkits that address common challenges like establishing farm business structures and earning organic certification.

With her law students, Pollans says she emphasizes how critical legal help can be for good food businesses to survive. “The clinic is embedded in developing a regional food system … by thinking about systemic barriers,” she says. “Lack of legal services is one of those barriers.”

Read the full article.