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Agribusiness

Overview

In the last two centuries, American farmers have created the most efficient, productive, and sustainable food production system the world has ever seen. And in the coming decades, they will be tasked with providing food for the globe’s swelling population, which is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

Feeding the world will also require overcoming challenges at home, where farmers increasingly find themselves on the defensive, forced to justify their activities — if not their very existence — in their own communities. Even as they have risen to the challenge of sustaining an ever-expanding global food supply, American farmers face a complicated web of legal, regulatory, and political pressures unlike anything their forebears would recognize.

The attorneys on Michael Best’s Agribusiness team understand this dilemma, not only because we have worked with farmers and related groups for decades, but also because our lawyers come from farm backgrounds themselves. We have leading agribusiness lawyers who grew up on farms, and our attorneys have spent time working in various parts of the food chain.

 

That personal connection explains why, in addition to counseling and defending U.S. farmers and food companies in legal, regulatory, and legislative matters, our attorneys serve as tireless advocates for agribusiness in the public sphere. Marshalling their unique understanding of American agriculture, its place in the global food chain, and the laws that govern it, our lawyers often go out of their way to help communities understand that farmers are a source of economic growth and a force for feeding the world.

Our advocacy is informed by decades of experience helping producers expand. In the earliest days of our practice, we partnered with a group of enterprising dairy farmers who, in their determination to build businesses that would thrive over multiple generations, formed the Dairy Business Association of Wisconsin (DBA). Working alongside the DBA, we saw the obstacles progressive farmers encounter as they seek to grow.

One of the greatest obstacles to expansion was, for many years, the highly complex permitting process imposed on farms in many states. We came to view that process as a significant threat to agricultural production. Serving as the DBA’s general counsel, our lawyers conceived and drafted new legislation that overhauled the approval process for dairy expansions — and that recognized dairy farming as an important economic and social engine for the state. After crafting Wisconsin’s historic Livestock Facility Siting Law, we helped guide its bipartisan passage in the state legislature. Finally, we successfully defended the new law before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, gaining an historic victory for livestock producers and for the state’s agricultural economy. That experience has led to similar work on siting and permitting with large producers all over the country. We have worked with agricultural clients in Washington, Idaho, California, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and parts between.

Similar issues continue to pose challenges today, all along the chain of food production. Agricultural production operates at the nexus of critical elements of life on Earth: food, water, and energy. While food producers must deal with these basic elements of survival daily, they must also understand and manage the increasing demands of agribusiness — which, in its use of sophisticated financial instruments, complicated capital structures, and state-of-the-art technology, has become as complex as any global enterprise.

Our lawyers understand these complexities because they’ve worked alongside food producers and processors to cultivate business growth. And, more important, they understand how the mastery of those complexities will help American farmers feed the world.

Experience

Adams v. State of Wisconsin

After the attorneys at Michael Best helped the industry launch Wisconsin’s Livestock Facility Siting Law in 2004, it didn’t take long before a municipality in the state challenged the statute’s new standards for issuing permits to livestock operations. When that challenge came, we were there, defending the law in court as we’d done in the legislature — and once again, our arguments prevailed.

The case originated in the Wisconsin township of Magnolia in Rock County, a town of fewer than 1,000 residents. The Larsons are a fifth-generation family of farmers hoping to build a new facility to raise heifers for their expanding dairy operation. When they applied for a permit for that facility, the town issued a conditional permit, imposing standards that contradicted the language in the new Livestock Facility Siting Law.

The Larsons hired Michael Best. Our team of agribusiness counselors and litigators fought the case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where we successfully argued that the Livestock Facility Siting Law preempted local authority. The court’s agreement with our statutory construction argument marked a seminal legal moment and a turning point for the Wisconsin dairy industry.

Wisconsin Livestock Facility Siting Law

For decades Wisconsin, like most states, relied on local governmental bodies to issue permits to livestock operations, based on non-point-source pollution regulations. Serving as outside counsel to the Dairy Business Association (DBA), Michael Best attorney David Crass saw that the failure to take the farm operations’ social and economic benefits into account when issuing those permits was not only limiting farmers’ ability to expand, but also creating a significant threat to the state’s dairy industry. Working with the DBA, David drafted the Wisconsin Livestock Facility Siting Law, which provided that livestock operations would be treated with the same considerations as landfills — environmentally sensitive but socially valuable enterprises.

After drafting the bill, David helped guide it through the state legislature, providing testimony, educating lawmakers, and advising the DBA’s board on the bill’s progress. The passage of the bill in 2004 marked a major turning point for the state’s dairy industry — and a signature moment for our agricultural practice, which remains highly attuned to our clients’ issues and needs in the legal, regulatory, and social climates where they operate.

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