Agriculture has become one of the most heavily regulated industries in the US, making it much more difficult than it once was to be a farmer or a rancher.
Laws in Play
Laws about starting up and operating any other business often come into play with an agricultural operation. For instance, the business may need to organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or some other business entity. There'll likely be licenses and permits you must get to operate legally.
Employment laws come into play with seasonal labor and hired hands.
In addition, there are legal issues specific to agriculture that can be very complicated and difficult to deal with. On the farming front, for example, local, state, federal and even international laws can cover all aspects of who can farm what, when and how it can be farmed, where it can be farmed, and how it can be sold or brought to market.
Abraham Lincoln founded the United States Department of Agriculture (Department) in 1862. Since the Great Depression of the 1930's, the federal government has been increasingly involved in setting national policies in agriculture. There are hundreds of pages of federal laws covering practically every aspect of agriculture in the US. The Department is constantly developing new rules to carry out national policies adopted by Congress.
Some of the most common federal laws affecting agriculture include:
- Farm subsidy, price support and payment programs
- Marketing programs
- Environmental issues
- Rural development programs
- Reclamation laws
- Food safety laws
- Special tax rules
Agriculture is affected by state rules and regulations, too. Although called by various names, every state has its own department that governs agricultural operations with the state. They create and enforce agricultural policies that may include:
- Implementing federal farm policies as they apply within the state
- Enhancing and protecting the ability of farmers and ranchers to produce food and fiber for the benefit of the general welfare and economy of the state
- Developing programs to maintain the economic well-being of agriculturally-dependent rural communities
- Adopting laws to prevent fraud and deception in the packaging or labeling, or in any phase of the marketing, of any agricultural products
- Managing the impact of farming or ranching on fish and wildlife preservation
Local agencies may also have a hand in regulating agricultural operations. Examples of local laws may include:
- Dates when crops can be planted and harvested
- Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals you're allowed to use
- Acreage limitations
- Labor and employment laws applicable to seasonal workers
- Water usage
- Zoning requirements
Agriculture is an increasingly international business. For example, imports from South American now make it possible to offer many agricultural products to US consumers that usually were available on a seasonal basis only (like fresh fruit). International laws are coming into play a lot more, too. Such laws include:
- Import and export requirements
- Immigration laws
- Treaty and tariff restrictions
Agriculture operations are watched over by many of the same law enforcement agencies and government agencies that have broad jurisdiction over business enterprises in general. That's because, as mentioned earlier, they usually have to deal with same things as any other business - labor and employment issues, licenses, etc.
In addition, there are a number of agencies and operatives specific to agriculture, such as:
- Local agriculture commissioners
- State and federal inspectors
An inspector or agent in charge of overseeing an agricultural operation may very well have the power to shut down operations. In addition, fines, penalties and even incarceration may be possible if farmers and ranchers don't follow the law.
Need More Information?
The government agencies regulating agriculture usually have the responsibility of making information available to farmers, ranchers, and others businesses involved in agriculture. You may not agree with their advice or policies, but they're still great sources of information.
In addition, there are many trade associations, cooperatives, agricultural leagues and associations, state and local farm bureaus, water and other special districts, university and college extension programs, and other private organizations that cater specifically to agriculture.
In many areas across the US, September is a busy time for farmers and ranchers as they prepare for Fall and Winter. That's why National Farm & Ranch Safety & Health Week is observed every year in September. Regardless of the time of year, safety should be a primary concern for any farmer or rancher.
The latest numbers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are starling and show how agricultural work is one of the most hazardous in the US:
- In 2008, there were close to 2 million full-time agricultural workers in the US, and in that same year, 456 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury for a fatality
- On average, 113 people under the age of 20 die annually from farm-related injuries
- Each day, about 243 agricultural workers suffer an injury that causes them to miss work
To help prevent you and your workers from becoming part of these statistics, there are a number of things you can do:
- Install roll-over protection equipment on your tractors, and make sure any equipment already installed is in good working condition
- Make sure your tractors, combines, and other machinery is in good working order
- Only let experienced or qualified workers operate heavy farm machinery
- Have proper lighting and reflective signs on machinery driven on public roads and highways
- Know and follow state and federal laws involving the handling and use of hazardous materials
- Have someone on the premises at all times who's trained in emergency first aid and CPR
- Have rescue procedures in place so you and your workers know how to safely handle emergencies like tractor rollovers, trapped workers, and dislodging machinery from ditches
Contact your state's department of agriculture for more information and tips on safety.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to pay or withhold employment taxes if the only farm workers I have are my spouse and children?
- Do state and federal child labor laws apply to my children who work on my farm?
- Can a worker be fired for missing too much work after being involved in a farming accident?