Professor Susan Schneider, B.A., J.D., LL.M., is the Director of the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law at the University of Arkansas.  She teaches agricultural and food law courses and serves as the Director of the School of Law's unique advanced degree program, the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law.

From the school’s web site, I learned “Professor Schneider's experience includes agricultural law work with firms in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C. She served as a staff attorney at Farmer's Legal Action Group Inc. and at the National Center for Agricultural Law Research & Information. In addition to teaching at the University of Arkansas school of Law, she has taught agricultural law and related subjects at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and at the Drake University Summer Agricultural Law Institute in Iowa.”

She’s a well published prof but one of the many things that got my interest was something she wrote 3 years ago.  Reconnecting Consumers and Producers: On the Path Toward a Sustainable Food and Agriculture Policy, 14 Drake J. Agric. L. 75 (2009) was important then but much more today.  There is a radical disconnect between those few Americans down on the farm who are still laboring to feed us all, and those who consume it all but seem to be to easily stampeded by half truths and outrageous mistakes in the popular press.

Today, we’re looking at an alarming and mostly non-factual attack on everything agriculture from chocolate milk to lean, finely textured beef.  The debate about a new farm bill is just starting to come to a boil and a frightening number of decisions will probably be based on politics and public opinion rather than science and hard data. 

A stampeded public opinion or ‘poli sci’ aside, much of what will go forth will be based on the law; what’s already written and what might be hashed out in court.  The very specialized field of ag law, as taught in leading schools like the University of Arkansas, will define what you can and cannot do in the future, long after the hot news of today is forgotten. 

Schneider is one of the most influential people in modern ag law so a few minutes talking about it seems prudent.

Q. Susan, with a new farm bill looming on the near horizon, it makes sense to take a look at agriculture and farm law.  Let’s start with the basics.  The University of Arkansas School of Law web site says “The laws that apply to the production, marketing, and sale of the food we eat, the natural fibers we wear, and increasingly, the bio-fuel that runs our cars have an extraordinary impact on us all.”  Would you talk about that impact and how it has changed?

A. There is one constant that will always connect agriculture to the rest of society - food. So even though the percentage of the population that is directly involved in farming is much lower than it was in the past, we all depend on agriculture to produce the food we need to eat. Agricultural products are also necessary to many other things in our lives - clothing, cosmetics, industrial products, and ethanol. Agricultural and food laws provide the legal infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Q. Why do you treat food and agriculture law as a separate curriculum?

A. For a variety of reasons, agriculture has been treated differently than other industries. For one thing, it’s a risk-laden business involving the production of living products. Also, it has typically been a very powerful political force. So, there are exceptions or special rules provided for agriculture under most of our laws and there are laws that apply only to agriculture, such as the farm programs under the farm bill. In a typical law school class, students learn the general law but not the special provisions or unique laws applicable to agriculture. The LL.M. program covers these exceptions.

Q. The Arkansas School of Law leads in Ag and Food Law and much of that leadership comes from the people who help teach the courses – the professors and special guests give the program a different flavor.  Who are they and what do they bring to the table?

A. My entire legal career has been focused on agricultural and food law, and I have represented farmers in practice settings ranging from a small regional agricultural law firm to a large DC practice. All of our professors have both distinguished academic backgrounds and experience in the practice of law, so our classes have both the academic or policy side and the practical side.  

Because of our longstanding reputation, we are able to attract some of the most respected legal professionals in the business. They come to Arkansas to teach special condensed courses for us. For example, noted food safety lawyer, Bill Marler teaches a food safety course for us; Neil Hamilton teaches courses involving sustainable agriculture, direct marketing, and rural development. Phil Kunkel teaches about commercial law and production contracting. We are really proud of our visiting professors and special guests.

Q. One of the biggest ‘hits’ farming takes is its use of natural resources.  Many groups complain that modern ag is not sustainable because it uses too much water and energy.  Others point to it as the original ‘green’ industry.  While much of the discussion is just talking points right now, there are a lot of rules and regulations that dictate farming practices.  Would you talk me through some of them?  And tell me what might be coming in the near future?

A. The intensive farming that has been so successful for us does take a lot of fossil fuel. Just talk to a farmer about input expenses and high oil prices. Pesticides, fertilizers, and fuel are all tied in one way or another. And it takes a lot of water. Agriculture is the largest consumer of fresh water in the world. So, will the same kind of farming be economically or environmentally sustainable in the future? Probably not. But, honestly, I don’t see regulation as being the reason for change. Contrary to what many farmers think, agriculture is actually less regulated than almost any other industry. Because we have moved from diversified small farms to large industrial operations, some additional regulation is expected. An average confined livestock operation produces more waste than a small city. Some regulation makes sense.  We need good, constructive communication to make those regulations work for all concerned. But, I don’t see increased regulation as being a driving force of change. That will probably come from climate change.

Q. To quote from your web site again, “Consumer interest in food and our overall food system has led to the development of food law as a central component of agricultural law studies. Increased interest in food safety, food labeling, and animal welfare — indeed, an interest in where and how our food is produced — has raised fundamental issues for legal study.”  We’ve seen the dramatic impact of that quote in the recent debate over lean finely textured beef and the reputed animal welfare exposes by organizations like PETA, HSUS and MFA.  They are current hot topics; how does the Arkansas School of Law handle them?

A. We attract a diverse group of attorneys each year, so we often have people on all sides of the debate on current controversial issues. We address all issues head-on with an objective analysis of the law and its policy implications. We don’t advocate for any side. We think that the best legal training we can provide is to teach our students to be able to see an issue from all perspectives. A good attorney needs to be able to know their opponent’s arguments as well as their own. 

Q. Most of your graduates practice in the U.S. but ag is increasingly a worldwide industry with exports and imports having a huge impact on food supply.  What do you do to prepare your students for those legal complications?

A. We live in a globalized world. Our agricultural products are exported all over the world. A large percentage of our food supply is imported from other countries. We explore international trade issues with a special agricultural trade class; we consider food security around the world in a global issues class; and we analyze import rules in the context of food safety.  Special lectures via video conference allow for international communication. And, we welcome attorneys from outside the U.S. to study with us. We have had LL.M. candidates from over 15 other countries. Their presence in our discussions is invaluable.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.