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Introduction to Ag Law

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Introduction to Agricultural Law



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This web site discusses agricultural law; accordingly we need to give some thought to what is agriculture and what is law.

Even though this web site focuses on agricultural law, it will become apparent that an "introduction to agricultural law" involves an introduction to several other key legal concepts. For the purpose of this web site, those key legal concepts are property law, tort law, contract law, and selected regulatory laws. This overview of agricultural law also includes a review of the structure of the U.S. system of government, including a review of topics such as statutes, regulations, common law, and the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

We will begin by briefly thinking about or describing "agriculture."

Agriculture is more than farming and ranching. Agriculture perhaps can be described as our food system and the resources used to produce food, now and in the future. Issues may relate to nutrition, food safety, crop and livestock production, processing, storage, transportation, financing, waste management, marketing, trade, etc. 

  • But even describing agriculture as food is not adequate today; agriculture is food, fuel and bio-products.
    • Would it be appropriate to describe agriculture as "using today's sunshine to produce food, fuel and bio-products to meet the needs of today's consumers?"
  • Agriculture is a changing industry; changes that are often driven by technology, such as advances in engineering and biology. 
  • It is an industry that will always be needed because there are more than 6 billion people in the world who want and need to be fed every day, as well as needing energy for our machines.
  • It is an exciting industry that offers opportunities, even though today's opportunities may be very different than what our grandparents or great-grandparents experienced 100 years ago.


Our next step is to begin thinking about or describing "law."

  • How can we explain law?
    • Laws are enforceable rules; there is a penalty or cost for violating the law.
      • The penalty may be paying a fine to government, or compensating another person if our illegal action damaged their property, or spending time in jail if our violation warrants imprisonment.
    • Generally, society, through government, enforces the law.
    • Some readings you may find helpful:
      • What is the Law? -- although these two pages address Canadian law, the concepts apply to U.S. law; be sure to read these two pages!
      • What is the Rule of Law? -- be certain to read the eight points in the section titled "Elements of the Rule of Law"
    • In the United States, the law includes statutes, regulations, and the common law (as described in more detail on another web page).


  • Law reflects society's values; that is, the law reflects how we want to treat each other.
    • Our representative form of government facilitates using society's values as the basis for our law, rather than having an individual or small group having their values as the sole basis for the laws (as would be the case with other forms of government). This statement is based on the assumptions that our elected representatives strive to reflect society's values and balance competing values, and that all of us are considerate of the values and needs of others.
  • The law changes as society adjusts its values -- what we considered acceptable yesterday may no longer be considered acceptable today, or the change could be the other way around, that is, what is unacceptable today may be acceptable in the future. Any examples? Advances in technology also cause us to change the law. Any examples?
  • The law cannot be ahead nor lag too far behind changes in society's values. Why? What is the consequence if the law does not reflect society's values?
  • It is difficult to delineate society's values for some issues. Any examples?
  • Our process for determining our values and the laws we want or need (that is, our representative form of government) is not perfect, but it appears to be one of the best methods yet devised.


Now let's merge the two concepts of agriculture and law.

Agricultural law encompasses 1) the application of fundamental legal concepts (such as property law and contract law) to issues arising in agriculture, and 2) legal concepts that are unique to agriculture (such as food safety regulations or soil conservation programs).

We will study legal rights that:

  • accompany property ownership (property concepts),
  • are innate to individuals (tort concepts),
  • can be adjusted by agreement between individuals (contract concepts), and
  • are held by society (regulatory concepts).


Summary of Key Points

  • The primary purpose of this page is to introduce the concept of law as enforceable rules that reflect society's values.
  • The agriculture industry is broadly defined for the purpose of these materials; it encompasses much more than production agriculture and food.
  • The law changes as society changes, or in the case of these materials, the law changes as our broadly defined agriculture changes.


The next page offers several basic legal principles.


Last updated August 25, 2010

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