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Vermont Legal Food Hub to offer free legal services

SOUTH ROYALTON — Vermont Law School (VLS) and Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in January launched the Vermont Legal Food Hub. Located at VLS’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) in South Royalton, the program will match income-eligible farmers and business owners with skilled attorneys willing to provide free legal services.
“A thriving local food system depends on the success of farms and food businesses,” said Sophia Kruszewski, director of CAFS’s Food and Agriculture Clinic. “Yet many of these businesses lack legal support. Our goal is to connect them with the assistance they need to be resilient and grow.”
One survey by Farm Commons found that only 10% of farmers used legal services, in contrast to 70% of small businesses in general. Starting a farm or food-related business comes with many associated legal needs, such as acquiring or transferring land or entering contracts. Farmers or food entrepreneurs sometimes go without legal services or pay more than they can afford. In the worst-case scenario, they may leave the profession due to these hurdles.
Jennifer Rushlow, who now serves as director of VLS’s Environmental Law Center, established the nation’s first Legal Food Hub in Massachusetts in 2014 as director of CLF’s Food & Farm Program. Since then, hubs have expanded to Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut. They have placed more than 450 clients with attorneys, leveraging more than $2.5 million in pro bono legal assistance. CAFS will serve as primary administrator of the Vermont hub, the first of its kind in the state.
“We’re proud to bring the Legal Food Hub to Vermont,” said Jen Duggan, vice president and director of CLF Vermont. “Supporting local farmers and food businesses leads to vibrant communities and a healthier environment for everyone.”
The Vermont hub has already recruited attorneys from 10 law firms and placed two pilot cases. One involves a group aiming to protect land for a farmer’s market and community garden in Putney.
“Forming a nonprofit is complicated, but applying to the Vermont Legal Food Hub was simple,” said client McKenna Hayes. “We were quickly paired with a pro bono attorney who is helping us navigate the process, ensuring the longevity of our farmer’s market and community garden.”
The hub also benefits attorneys. By working with the local food sector, law firms gain access to a quickly growing practice area. In other states, nearly half of surveyed hub attorneys reported continued relationships with their clients, often on a paid basis, as businesses have grown.
“Providing legal services on a pro bono basis offers our firm the possibility of a long-term relationship,” said Jeff Bernstein, attorney with BCK Law, who is representing Hayes. “And it’s satisfying to help establish a new venture that will enrich the local community.”
Vermont Law School students will help to manage the program under the supervision of licensed attorneys, according to CAFS Director Laurie Beyranevand. “Not only will the Legal Food Hub provide a service to our community,” she said, “but students in our Food and Agriculture Clinic will also have the opportunity to fill a needed role, working on real-world cases that support Vermont’s food system.”
The Hub is currently recruiting additional attorneys and accepting applications for legal assistance from Vermont farmers, food entrepreneurs, and related organizations. For more information, visit legalfoodhub.org or contact Whitney Shields, program coordinator, at legalhub@vermontlaw.edu or 802-831-1307.
This project is funded by the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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