What is Agricultural Law?

What is Agricultural Law?

By Samuel Parry

What is agricultural law? Broadly, agricultural law is an industry focused classification that encompasses all law relevant to ag production. The unique characteristics of ag production require a unique application of the law. Sometimes, the law even treats agriculture specially. This reflects a national policy that favors food production and the noble mission to feed the world.

Still, agricultural production is subject to more laws than you can shake a stick at, and often, a likely legal outcome is not necessarily intuitive.

“Your property line may not be where you think . . .”

One example involves property issues. Agricultural operations are commonly land intensive, and can involve miles of property boundaries. A ranch I worked on in northern Nevada had hundreds of miles of property boundaries it shared with dozens of neighbors. Some boundary fences would run for miles. Property boundaries are not likely as permanent and immovable as you think; boundary issues can be complicated. Surprisingly, your property line may not be where you think due to at least two legal doctrines: 1) adverse possession, and 2) boundary by agreement. These topics will be discussed in greater detail in future articles; however, in short, adverse possession occurs when a property owner sleeps on their rights to the extent that someone else gains possession and uses the property as their own for a certain amount of time, which amount of time is defined by a statute and varies by state.

The legal analysis is factually intensive, but as a quick example, pretend you own two sections of land (1,280 acres). Without your actual knowledge, somebody moves in on the “back forty” and begins to use the land in a way that you would have noticed if you were paying attention. This is not common, but it’s also not unheard of, and a number of factual situations make it more probable (i.e., absentee ownership of remote bare land). If the adverse possessor meets all the legal elements for the statutory period, title to the portion they used automatically transfers to them. The result? You now only own 1,240 acres. Crazy huh?

States that disfavor adverse possession have longer statutory periods. Idaho, for instance, has the longest statutory period in the West at twenty years. That means a person would have to move onto your property and meet all the legal elements for twenty years before title would pass to them. Nevada’s statutory period for adverse possession is only five years; so is Montana’s and California’s. It’s seven years in Utah and Washington. Oregon, Wyoming, and New Mexico require ten years of adverse possession before title is legally transferred. In Colorado, it is seven or eighteen years depending on whether the adverse possessor pays property taxes. And its only two years in Arizona!

Boundary by agreement is another legal doctrine that can affect the location of your property boundary without you necessarily realizing it. Again, these cases are factually specific and this generalized discussion assumes a lot of facts. A straight forward boundary by agreement case would involve a partition fence that was erected and treated as the property boundary by the adjoining land owners, even though it was not placed on the actual border between their properties. Depending on whether the fence encroached on your land or your neighbors, you may gain or lose property.

If the fence encroaches on your property and you notice before much time passes, you’ll likely be able to challenge the location of the fence; however, if twenty years pass and you’ve been treating the fence as a property line all that time, challenging the location of the property boundary would be much more difficult—even if it is specifically described by a legal description in your deed.

Your property boundary could also change if the border is defined by the location of a river or creek. As the banks of the river move over time, your property boundary may also move. In some cases you could be left with less property than you originally purchased.

Property issues are only one small example of what agricultural law entails. Agricultural law also implicates contracts, employment law, secured transactions, tax law, estate planning, business planning, cooperatives, civil and criminal liabilities, environmental regulations, and more.

The Agricultural Law Society is a non-profit entity committed to helping ag producers understand how various laws may affect their operation. We are not a law firm and do not provide factually specific advise to individuals. Instead, we provide pro bono seminars to producer groups on specific legal topics. For you specific legal needs, our board members are all licensed attorneys with expertise in agricultural law and are happy to represent you in their individual, professional capacity, independent of the Ag Law Society.