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City firm sows farm practice

Gordon Feinblatt LLC has started an agricultural law practice group during a time when attorneys say there is an increased demand in the farming community for legal representation.

Few, if any, Baltimore-area law firms appear to advertise practice groups focused on agricultural law, but it is a field that has promise in the state, attorneys said.

“I think it’s safe to say that this is a growing area with a lot of demand,” said Michael Pappas, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law assistant professor. “Agricultural communities, rural communities don’t necessarily have a lot of great diversity of lawyers.”

The momentum to form the group partially stems from Gordon Feinblatt’s successful representation of farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson against allegations by nonprofit environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. that their farm and Perdue Farms Inc. had polluted the Pocomoke River and Chesapeake Bay.

George F. Ritchie, the Hudson family’s lead attorney, said the case is an example of how farmers are increasingly facing litigation due to more government regulations on the environment.

“I think now is a unique time compared to 10, 15 years ago,” said Ritchie, who is a co-chair of the agricultural law group. “Environmental groups are finding litigation is a more effective way of pursuing their agenda, and farmers need a defense on that front.”

Pappas said farmers in the state are more often seeking help as they grapple with modern issues, like leasing rights for hydraulic fracturing — extracting natural gas from shale — or the installation of wind turbines on rural farms.

“You find there are pressures that have increased and continue to increase the need for services in the legal community,” Pappas said.

Gordon Feinblatt has formed an eight-attorney practice group focused on such legal problems facing farmers as succession planning — passing the farm on to future generations — and how to structure farms as businesses.

“Farmers are really just another type of people who do business in Maryland, and we can help them with a variety of issues they face,” said Margaret M. Witherup, also a co-chair of the agricultural law group.

A large aspect will be helping farmers understand environmental regulations.

“We think this is an underserved market,” Ritchie said. “It seems clear to us the regulation of the farm industry in this state are very strict. Without legal help to navigate government regulations and law, farmers are really going to struggle.”

The group also will focus on helping farmers with areas of the law that are not necessarily specific to agricultural law, but still apply to farmers, like real estate law — dealing with lease issues — and litigation.

“It’s really an industry wheel,” Ritchie said. “The spokes go out in every direction of legal discipline.”

A U.S. District judge ruled in December that Waterkeeper Alliance failed to show Perdue and the Hudson family had violated the Clean Water Act.

The firm’s involvement in the case and its already strong agriculture client base, which includes the Maryland Farm Bureau, formed the basis for creating the group, Witherup and Ritchie said.

“It is a part of what we already do,” Witherup said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a stretch. It’s a natural outreach of what we are already doing.”

Since the firm was already active in environmental work, creating a practice group was simply placing a label on it, Ritchie said.

The plan is to market the new group with a periodic newsletter to clients from the firm’s business, environmental and real estate groups. The newsletter will detail issues in the agricultural community.

Potential clients would include not just farmers, but also food distributors, resellers and others connected to agricultural industries, they said.

Interest in agricultural law is growing in the academic realm, as well, Pappas said.

UM Carey has just launched the Agriculture Law Education Project, a partnership with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore School of Agricultural and Natural Sciences. The initiative focuses on addressing the legal needs of Maryland’s rural communities.

In the spring semester, the law school is also adding for the first time a food, farming and sustainability class (taught by Pappas).

“The demand is certainly there, and it’s an area that is getting more attention,” Pappas said. “In terms of section of practice, there are certainly needs in the agricultural community.”