Law school alumna brings low-cost legal services to agriculture industry
Rachel Armstrong (JD ’12) didn’t plan on becoming a lawyer. The founder of Farm Commons, a nonprofit legal-services firm, and read more…
Rachel Armstrong (JD ’12) didn’t plan on becoming a lawyer. The founder of Farm Commons, a nonprofit legal-services firm, and the recent recipient of an $80,000 fellowship from a global entrepreneurship foundation had something more pastoral in mind.
“As a kid, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I would always say I wanted to be a farmer,” Armstrong says. “Or else marry a farmer,” she adds with a laugh.
Armstrong did become a farmer, working for several years after college on mixed vegetable farms outside Madison, Wis. She became immersed in the fast-growing world of community-supported agriculture (CSA). These farms are usually small, collectively run operations that supply weekly boxfuls of fresh produce to paying members and, increasingly, to grocery stores and restaurants.
Armstrong loved the work, but a nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome eventually made it too painful to grip a shovel or operate a spray hose. She left farming but not the field of sustainable agriculture, taking a marketing and business development job with a nonprofit working to increase the use of fresh local produce in restaurants and elsewhere. It was there that Armstrong saw the pressing need for affordable legal services for farmers and, at the same time, the reluctance of many farmers to seek help from a lawyer.
“Farmers definitely have a touch of anti-establishment in them,” she says. “They may not be inclined to ask someone in a suit for advice.”
Armstrong came to two conclusions: First, farmers would benefit greatly from the creation of a legal services organization where they would feel comfortable asking for help, and where the staff and lawyers would actually know something about farms and farming. That’s how Farm Commons was born. The nonprofit start-up is dedicated to providing with low-cost legal assistance, resources and education to sustainable farmers so they can operate stable and resilient enterprises. Though it is a one-woman operation for now, Armstrong envisions a nationwide network of farm-savvy lawyers and an online database of do-it-yourself legal resources, ranging from community farm membership agreements to forms for registering as an LLP.
The second conclusion? She would have to go to law school.
Of the few law schools with agriculture law programs, none was located in a place Armstrong felt like spending three years of her life. Instead she came to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, drawn not only to life in the Mile High City, but also to the law school’s strong emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning. Armstrong says there were no farm law classes for her to take per se, but “everything I learned, I would be thinking, ‘How does this apply to farmers?’”
In 2011, the College of Law launched the Community Economic Development Clinic, part of a planned expansion under the school’s strategic plan. Armstrong was part of the first cohort to complete the inaugural semesterlong program.
She and a classmate were assigned to represent Groundwork Denver, a nonprofit focused on urban environmental improvement issues. The organization was looking for legal and business assistance after being approached by a local developer to construct and operate a hydroponic greenhouse on the rooftop of a downtown Denver high-rise. The idea was for the greenhouse to be completely self-sustaining, supported by the vegetables and other produce it would grow. Armstrong found herself back in familiar territory, advising the group’s leadership on the pros and cons of the CSA model (Groundwork Denver had originally planned to sell directly to restaurants), as well as issues like taxes, marketing, sales and even what to do if a crop fails.
“We were really lucky to get [someone] who is so passionate about food and food production,” says Wendy Hawthorne, Groundwork Denver’s executive director. “Rachel brought a level of experience to the project we wouldn’t normally expect from a student.”
Armstrong’s background and expertise caught the attention of other people, too. Earlier this year she earned a coveted fellowship from Echoing Green, a global foundation supporting social entrepreneurs. Only 20 fellows were selected out of thousands of applicants worldwide. The fellowship comes with $80,000 in funding for Farm Commons, to be distributed over two years, plus access to Echoing Green’s vast support and development network. The foundation called Armstrong’s dual background in farming and the law a “powerful combination” for efforts to improve sustainable farm security.
“Rachel’s experiences come together very well on this idea,” says Lara Galinsky, a senior vice president at Echoing Green. “It’s an innovative approach to a stubborn problem in America.”
Armstrong believes CSAs and the local food movement as a whole have the potential to revolutionize Americans’ relationship with food and food production. Her goal is not just “more overpriced kale for yuppies,” as she wrote in preparation for the Echoing Green proposal, but a fundamental reorganization of how food is grown, bought and eaten in this country.
A tall order, no doubt, but who better than a lawyer who knows her way around a vegetable farm (or is it a farmer who knows her way around the law?) to meet the challenge?