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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.•

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    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
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    1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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