The biggest legal case affecting U.S. agriculture is perpetually a day away, or at least a steady stream of judicial cases makes it seem as if agriculture is forever forced into a never-ending courtroom high-wire act. With a full docket of pending trials or decisions ahead of us, what court cases are likely to take center stage in 2017?
Several cases related to the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) are spilling into 2017, subject to new looks from the Trump administration. Duarte Nursery v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers weighs heavy for agriculture regarding government jurisdiction under the CWA, according to Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, an Extension agricultural law specialist at Texas A&M University. In 2012, California grower John Duarte attempted to replace grassland with winter wheat on 450 acres, but was blocked by the Corps after the land was deemed a wetlands. The case is on appeal after the initial court decision backed the Corps.
A major Endangered Species Act (ESA) test is on tap for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Utah. The Utah prairie dog is exclusively an intrastate species but has the interstate protection of ESA. “The trial court sided with the plaintiffs,” Lashmet says. “This could get blocked on appeal, but if the decision is upheld, it would set precedent for limiting the ESA.”
Lashmet also points to the class-action suits filed by producers dealing with Syngenta and Viptera corn. The producers claim Viptera’s lack of approval in China soiled the market and tanked prices. Lashmet expects trial proceedings to begin in 2017 unless the parties settle.
An ongoing battle between the Montana Beef Council (MBC) and the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) related to the $1 Beef Act assessment provides a significant 2017 ag law case, notes Harrison Pittman, director of the National Agricultural Law Center in Fayetteville, Ark. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the MBC and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) gives AMS oversight of MBC. “This MOU represents a significant realignment of operation between producers, tax payers, state governments, USDA, universities and state associations or councils. Everyone should pay attention and not whistle past this one,” he says.
John Deere, Precision Planting and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are in the middle of major precision agriculture litigation, explains Todd Janzen, Janzen Agricultural Law, in Indianapolis. According to a DOJ lawsuit, a proposed Deere and Precision Planting merger gives the duo 86% of the high-speed planting market.
Janzen doesn’t think Deere will be prevented from acquiring Precision Planting, but he says Deere might be required to divest itself of certain technologies. The ripple effect? “Other companies may feel it’s risky to acquire agtech startups, even though farmers might have benefited from the result,” Janzen says. “However, competitors may benefit, snatching up divested technology that Deere attempted to control.”
One legal facet involving data sharing hasn’t surfaced, but is hanging around the Deere case, according to Janzen. The DOJ hasn’t shown concern for a data sharing arrangement between Deere and Precision Planting, but that might change in the future, he says: “Down the road, DOJ may act if they think any particular company controls too much agronomic data.”
Each year the high-stakes arena of agricultural law sets precedent that directly influences the finances and fortunes of U.S. farmers. Simply, a pen on paper affects a plow on dirt.