Farm Bureau counsel eyes laws of the land

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In-House Counsel

Mark Thornburg, general counsel and director of legal affairs for the Indiana Farm Bureau, never considered becoming an attorney until he was 30 years old. His father was a “small-time” farmer, he said, and Thornburg grew up with an eye on the issues that mattered most to farmers.

He graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics, and he earned a master’s in business administration from Ball State University. He ultimately decided to pursue his law degree after returning from a Washington, D.C., fellowship offered through the United States Department of Agriculture and National Association of Counties.

“I could see the importance of the legal component for agriculture, and it was not a total void – there were ag attorneys out there, but not nearly enough,” Thornburg said. He enrolled in Valparaiso University School of Law and earned his juris doctor in 1998.

Indiana Farm Bureau hired Thornburg as an environmental attorney in 1999. Nowadays, as the director of legal affairs, he oversees the bureau’s legal team and handles a wide variety of legal tasks. The bureau has about 280,000 members statewide. Around 80,000 of those members are farmers, and the rest are either people with an interest in agriculture or Farm Bureau Insurance policyholders. (Insurance, Thornburg points out, is just one of the many perks of bureau membership).

thornburg-mark15col Mark Thornburg is general counsel and director of legal affairs for the Indiana Farm Bureau. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Thornburg plays a significant role in developing Indiana Farm Bureau’s public policy agenda. The bureau’s structure as a 501(c)(5) – a status granted only to labor, agricultural, or horticultural organizations – allows it to be classified as a non-profit while granting it the ability to lobby. Thornburg and one other attorney on the legal team are both registered lobbyists.

Issues that are important to farmers are important to the Indiana Farm Bureau. “And that can be a variety of things from grain contracting to bankruptcy to natural resources to land use planning to the Farm Bill – transportation, health regulations – a wide variety of things,” Thornburg said.

Under Thornburg’s direction, the bureau gained significant ground in the legal community. In 2005, he helped launch the Indiana Agricultural Law Foundation, a non-profit subsidiary of the farm bureau.

Indiana Farm Bureau President Don Villwock said, “Mark’s vision of the need for and the founding of the Indiana Bar Ag Law Foundation has been a key to helping farmers in precedent-setting cases in our state. He was also one of the original attorneys that saw the need for an Ag Law section of the Indiana State Bar Association.”

Thornburg said the non-profit Indiana Agricultural Law Foundation does not provide one-on-one legal advice to farmers. But it may provide funding in support of some cases it believes have broad applications in the agricultural community.

“We have an advisory committee that reviews cases that’s made up of agricultural attorneys and farmers, and then the committee makes a recommendation to the board for approval and denial,” Thornburg said.

The subject matter in some of the cases the foundation has supported has included the right of property owners to allow high-fenced hunting on their own land, Indiana’s Right to Farm Act, and whether violating an administrative statute constitutes a crime (the charges were dropped in that case).

He said that the foundation has limited financial resources and therefore must be selective in deciding which cases to support. Increasingly, it has been funding educational programs. Thornburg said he hopes attorneys around the state feel free to contact the Indiana Farm Bureau legal team about any cases that may be relevant to farming.

Outreach efforts

Because of Thornburg’s background – including 18 years working for the Purdue Cooperative Extension – he understands some of the ongoing, deep-seeded issues that affect farmers. And he understands the culture.

“I guess it’s like any industry,” he said. “There’s kind of a culture and vocabulary that’s very specific to their business.”

He said that people may not realize that even today, many farm agreements or leases are either oral or sealed with a handshake.

“Eastern Livestock went bankrupt earlier this year and they did a huge-volume business with most of it not in writing,” he said. “What I like to say is you don’t write agreements for the times that go well. Farmers need to be – and for the large part, many of them have become – very sophisticated business people.”

Thornburg said that one cause of anxiety in the farming community is that the people making decisions that directly affect farmers often don’t understand the farmers’ point of view. Eminent domain, he said, is one such cause of concern.

“Where public utilities go is generally the path of least resistance, which is through our members’ farmland,” Thornburg said. And when a builder is making money off of something built on a farmer’s land, it causes tension.

“A lot of regulators don’t understand the culture of what they’re trying to regulate,” Thornburg said. “There’s no smokestack to measure the output of a farm like you would the output of a factory.”

The Indiana Farm Bureau legal team tries to bridge that gap between farmer and regulator, helping farmers understand the rationale behind certain regulations and how those regulations could affect their livelihoods.

“We’ve tried to work with American Farm Bureau in other states to develop a system where states talk about these issues more,” he said.•


  • I have same Issue as you had in 2012
    I have the same issue in Indiana as you had in your post of July 16, 2012 12:46 PM. Did you ever receive an answer? Glen
  • Indiana Fence Law
    I am a township trustee in Indiana. I am currently dealing with a fence dispute. A woman wants to install a fence around her 18 acres to raise cattle. The county surveyor and planning commission says there is no state law that require the owners who don't want to pay for half of the fence to do so. Trying to educate myself on this issue online, everything I read states otherwise. Who is correct? I need to make a correct decision. Regards, Linda

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    1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

    2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

    3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

    4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

    5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.