Are you a “farmer”? Do you live on a “farm” or run a “farming operation”? Most of us know a farmer when we see one. Many even see one when we look in the mirror! But if you had to put it into words, what would you include? Why does it even matter? In the legal context, it certainly matters. Words are the tools of the law, and as the law has developed, a definition has been created for nearly everything you can think of.
The definitions for “farmer” and “farm or farming operation” have been set out in many different parts of the law and by many different agencies. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the agency responsible for conducting the Census of Agriculture, a “farm” is defined as “any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold.” This is the definition currently used by USDA when conducting surveys, but the farm definition has changed nine times since a definition was first set out in 1850. The Economic Research Service, also a part of USDA, has a special definition of “family farm,” stating that a family farm is “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation.” This definition excludes farms organized as nonfamily corporations and farms with hired managers. Are we confused yet?
To make matters even more difficult, different areas of the law have special definitions for all things farm related. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which deals with a variety of topics related to the law of sales and other commercial transactions, defines many terms related to agriculture. The UCC defines “farm products” as “crops grown, growing or to be grown.” Working on a “farm operation” means that you are involved in “raising, cultivating, propagating, fattening, grazing or any other farming, livestock or aquacultural operation.”
Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code was created as a special provision for family farmers and fishermen to help them reorganize. Of course to qualify under this special chapter, you must meet the requirements which state that only a family farmer or fisherman with “regular annual income” may file under Chapter 12. To qualify as a family farmer, you must be engaged in a “farming operation,” which includes “farming, tillage of the soil, dairy farming, ranching, production or raising of crops, poultry or livestock, and the production of poultry or livestock products in an unmanufactured state.” Doesn’t this all sound the same? Why is it a little different under each law? Why does this even matter?
The law is full of exceptions and special provisions for agriculture. In each of these situations, definitions of the same term may be unique to the law. These definitions are used for a variety of purposes, from determining your eligibility for disaster assistance to the outcome of a court decision. This means that even though you see yourself as a farmer, the law may not. Making yourself aware of the standards that apply to you or your farm is one tool you can use to make informed decisions and look for new opportunities to grow your “farming operation,” however you define it.
Shannon Mirus of Farmington, Ark., is a licensed attorney in Arkansas. She is currently pursuing an advanced masters degree in agricultural law at the University of Arkansas.