Editors’ note: This column originally appeared in the Nov. 25, 2014 edition of the Delmarva Farmer (Vol. 39, No. 39). It should be noted that even Paul feels like he has beaten the needs assessment to death with this article.
This month, I’m taking a break from discussing a legal issue with you and focusing on a recently completed legal needs assessment from the Agricultural Law Education Initiative (ALEI). The report was prepared by Wanding Zhang, former ALEI members Lori Lynch and William Pons, and ALEI members Stephan Tubene and myself. The report is based on 22 structured interviews of representatives from agricultural, waterman, natural resource, and environmental groups and leaders in state government, and a survey of University of Maryland Extension (UME) agricultural faculty to gain a better understanding of Maryland agriculture’s legal needs. For those interested in reading the full report, please see http://bit.ly/mdaglaw1 to access the full report.
So why do a legal needs assessment? When ALEI was formed in early 2013, we were given the broad directive by the General Assembly to assist the state’s agricultural producers with trusts and estates issues, compliance with environmental laws, and other issues necessary to preserve Maryland family farms. Understanding the issues surrounding preservation of Maryland’s family farms is a very broad directive and the group determined that a needs assessment was necessary to get a handle on the exact legal issues impacting Maryland agriculture.
So what do the results show us? Well many of you can guess that legal issues related to the environment and land use were the top two issues in both the structured interviews and the UME survey. Other common issues included legal issues related to Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) programs, business planning, and food safety legal issues. To see a complete list of legal issues from the structured interviews and the UME survey, please check out the full report.
To me, the interesting issues are those that did not rank near the top. Maryland is home to 2,519 poultry operations, but concerns over production contracts ranked near the bottom of responses in the structured interviews. Interviewees were not asked for an explanation why issues related to production contracts were not challenges to Maryland poultry producers. But with the UME survey, production contracts ranked near the top for those UME ag faculty located on the Eastern Shore.
In the UME survey, we asked ag faculty which forms of outreach would work best in Maryland. Forms of outreach given ranged from read a fact sheet, to attend a meeting in their home county, attend a meeting 75 to 100 miles from home, participate in a webinar, or watch an online video. For the majority of issues, the top form of outreach was attend a meeting in their home county, followed by view a fact sheet, watch an online video, participate in a webinar, and attend a meeting 75 to 100 miles from home.
Understanding the best form of outreach is important for a new group, such as ALEI. We can potentially have the greatest impact by utilizing outreach methods that will reach the largest audience. But as many of you know, you may not realize you have a legal issue till you are facing it, so county meetings may not always be effective unless many are facing that issue at the same time. A mix of fact sheets, county meetings, and online videos is potentially the best way to address legal issues. With this mix, we will have available a series of relevant resources that will help you better understand the legal issues you are facing.
I think the biggest take away for me is the flexibility that ALEI will need in addressing this diverse set of legal needs. We have to take into account that important legal issues impacting agriculture in Washington or Frederick counties may not be the same important legal issues impacting agriculture in Somerset and Wicomico counties. At the same time, we have to be willing to develop a mix of outreach tools allowing access to information when it is relevant, in a useful format.
Take a moment, read the needs assessment report, and let us know: did we get close? Should we be focusing on other issues? We realize that legal needs will change over time – since we have done this needs assessment, data ownership has become a hot issue in agriculture. Please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.