Intro to Food and Ag Law Online


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STOCKSCH 297 FL – Intro to Food and Agricultural Law

Instructor: Rachel Armstrong


Course Description:

Farmers are expected to be many things: marketer, manager, accountant, etc. A maze of laws and regulations can make a farmer wonder if she needs to be a lawyer as well. This course aims to demystify some key areas of law for the direct to consumer, organic, and small-scale farmer as well as their advocates and advisors. This course will provide an overview of the various federal and state laws that a small farmer or food processor is likely to encounter, and a glimpse into how government interacts with farmers. Students will make sense of the various federal and state agencies interacting with agriculture, through statutes, regulations, and government programs. The course will address the fundamentals of farm employment law, food safety, business entities, land use matters, farm financing, injury liability, agritourism, and sales issues. At the end of the course, students will be in a better position to assess in their own businesses when they may be able to resolve their own legal issues and when it may be wise to rely upon outside legal counsel. This course will focus on areas of agriculture and food law that are relatively uniform throughout the country, so a student will learn relevant legal concepts regardless of which state they work.

Course Structure:

This course is offered during the winter session, meaning that it is fast-paced and requires diligence in keeping up with readings. The various topics will be presented in four segments, each with its own set of required readings, pre-recorded mini-lectures from the instructor, homework questions, and online class discussion questions posted to the “discussion forum” section of Blackboard. At the end of the course, there will be an “open-book” exam which students will have several days to complete.

About the Instructor:

Rachel Armstrong is the founder and Executive Director of Farm Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing proactive legal education materials to sustainable farmers. She founded the organization after a career as a farm employee and local food system advocate. Education is the core of Farm Commons’ programming and Rachel is a sought-after instructor who makes the law relevant and interesting to farmers and attorneys alike. Rachel is licensed to practice law in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She earned her law degree from the University of Denver.


  • Class Participation and Discussion Assignments: 40%
  • Homework Assignments: 30%
  • Final Exam: 30%

Learning Objectives:

Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:

  1. Understand the different roles of local, state, and federal government in regulating farms and food businesses, and understand how the three interact with one another
  2. Explain the key characteristics of the various businesses entities as related to farming
  3. Describe the basic employment laws applicable to farmers and relate the key differences between farm and non-farm employment law
  4. Understand how a farm incurs legal liability and the various insurance policies available to manage liability risk
  5. Identify the legal implications of a food safety outbreak and the legal management strategies available to farmers and producers
  6. Grasp the basic legal concerns relative to land leasing, land purchasing, and land use regulation in the United States as a whole
  7. List the legal issues farmers encounter as they diversify from basic production and into food processing, agritourism, education, and other value-added ventures.

Course Outline:

  1. Unit One: Basics of American Law and Agricultural Law as a Whole
    1. What are the sources of law and how are laws made?
      1. State and federal statutes and regulations: The interplay between authorities
      2. Local government, ordinances, and inspectors: Power and limits to power
      3. Common law: Because it’s not complicated enough already
    2. What is a “farm” and what is “agriculture”? An exploration of definitions in the law
    3. Finding legal answers: Tools, resources, and strategies
  2. Unit Two: Getting Started as a Farmer
    1. Choosing a business entity and structure for the farm
    2. Buying, leasing, and selling land: an overview of legal concepts
    3. Financing your operation: the legal considerations around loans, collateral, and CSAs as a form of financing
    4. Protecting your operation: an overview of insurance options
    5. Basic sales risk management
  • Unit Three: Scaling and Diversifying the Farm Business
    1. Food safety laws: An introduction to the Food Safety Modernization Act and lawsuits surrounding food-borne illnesses
    2. Workers: an overview of the complexities behind farm employees, contractors, volunteers, interns, and apprentices
    3. Agritourism, Food Processing and Value added products: Managing changing legal obligations


This class is part of the Sustainable Food and Farming Online Certificate Program and will count toward the Associate of Science degree as well as the Online B.S. degree.  Online classes cost $482/credit.

To begin planning for the future, see….

Annual Class Schedule

NOTE: The UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Certificate has been declared eligible for Veterans Educational Benefits. For instructions see: Veterans Benefits.

If you are not interested in earning college credit, there are many non-credited workshops and short courses you can take outside of the university.  For a list see: non-university workshops and courses.

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