A Fertile Niche
Minnesota Law grads are thriving in the fast-changing world of food and agriculture law
Food and agriculture are among the most dynamic and complex industries in the world. Globalization, volatile prices, climate change, and vulnerable supply chains are just a few of the issues at play today in these sectors. New products and technologies are producing rapid transformation, and novel legal issues are emerging from changes in the way food is grown, processed, packaged, transported, and consumed.
With both innovation and regulation on the rise in these industries, lawyers must navigate an increasingly complicated landscape of compliance, environmental concerns, food and animal safety, intellectual property, technology, and trade.
Many University of Minnesota Law School alumni are employed around the globe in diverse and interesting positions connected to food and agriculture. They are helping bring new products such as non-animal protein to market and patenting technologies that capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere. They are building sustainability into food packaging and resiliency into supply chains. Some are former farmers who bring hands-on experience to their legal work.
Seven alumni recently shared their stories and insights about the fast-evolving fields of agriculture and food.
Bringing a Farm Background to Agricultural Lending
Attorney Rick Halbur ’13 of New Ulm, Minnesota, understands the challenges farmers face. Growing up on a family farm in western Iowa, he learned what it takes to raise livestock and cultivate crops—and how crucial credit can be in helping a farm operation thrive.
Today, as a partner in the firm of Gislason & Hunter, he brings his deep experience with farming to his practice in banking law and agricultural lending. He primarily represents lenders and community banks that finance farming and agricultural operations in Minnesota and Iowa. Much of his work has involved representing creditors in Chapter 11 and 12 bankruptcy reorganizations.
“From 2013 until the beginning of 2020, commodity prices were often lower than many farmers and their creditors would prefer, so we saw an increase in bankruptcies, especially in the dairy industry,” Halbur says. He notes that significant changes to the bankruptcy code in 2019 have allowed more farmers to utilize the less expensive chapter 12 reorganization process. “It’s a much more abbreviated and cost-effective way to reorganize debt. Creditors and borrowers like that it has a tighter turnaround than many Chapter 11 cases. It was one of the few things that had bipartisan support.”
Halbur is the first in his family to earn a four-year degree. He was inspired to study law after meeting the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in late 2008 and early 2009, while studying as an undergraduate in Rome. “I came home and knew what I wanted to do,” he says. He earned his highest grade at Minnesota Law in a bankruptcy class but didn’t expect to pursue a career in that area. After graduating, he worked in real estate and estate planning with a firm in Fergus Falls, where he got his first taste of litigation. “I was surprised how much I liked it,” he says. “It’s fast-paced and you’re always encountering new and novel legal issues. You get opportunities to make arguments about what precedent should be.”
He moved to Gislason & Hunter in 2016 and quickly gravitated to representing agricultural lenders. “Agriculture is a huge part of our practice,” he says. “It’s a fascinating area of law, and there’s never a dull moment.”
Like many farmers, he is watching commodity prices closely. “They drive everything. And with the continuing uncertainty of the impact of COVID-19 and trade war issues, it’s going to be an interesting year ahead.”
After earning advanced degrees in plant science and studying business essentials and analytics through Harvard University’s ManageMentor program, Aman Anand, M.S. in Patent Law ’19, knew he was still missing an essential skill set: how to protect innovation, particularly through patent law.
“I understood the science, I got the business training, but I needed to know about the legal aspects of protecting invention, which is the bedrock of innovation,” he says. He enrolled in the Law School’s innovative master’s in patent law program to learn how to bring a vital legal perspective to his position at the agricultural cooperative CHS, with a particular focus on how to ensure that inventors can control the commercial use of their inventions.
“My legal training changed how I look at things,” he says. “It helped me see the important intersection of innovation and science. If you look at the current trend among Fortune 500 companies, you see how things are moving from tangible to intangible assets, where the value of intangible assets is five times greater than tangible. Every company is a technology company now, including agricultural businesses. Having a legal background that can protect your intellectual intangible assets is essential.”
Anand says that over the past decade agriculture has changed more than any other industry, with new equipment and technology generating large amounts of data to help farmers. “Precision agriculture, site-specific farming, sensor technology, and even drones are helping revitalize the agriculture food system,” he says. “My degree lets me evaluate the nature of the patent to see if it’s valuable or just a marketing glitch. That helps us decide where to invest.”
He is particularly focused on climate and environment. “One of the biggest challenges in the agricultural production system is to guarantee current and future food security as the global population grows,” he says. “Environmental stresses are a significant hurdle. Abiotic stresses are a major factor limiting crop productivity and sustainability worldwide. It causes 50% of agricultural production loss.”
As a liaison with dozens of private and land-grant universities, he is working on a range of experiments related to plant nutrition, herbicides, fungicides, amendments to build soil health, and carbon sequestration efforts. “We’re always looking to maximize revenue for farmers in ways that can safeguard the environment,” he says.
Anand calls himself an “accidental agriculturalist,” a person who had intended to become a medical doctor but fell in love with plant biology along the way. “I realized how fascinating plant life is and what a huge social impact it has. Food is a major motivator for all of us. I’m interested in helping create good food for a good life.”
Advancing Sustainability and Resiliency
“My single favorite thing about my job is that I never know what my day is going to bring,” Kelly McLain ’04 says of her position as lead lawyer for Cargill’s Global Edible Oil Solutions Group. “It could be anything, from a genetic modification question to helping manage compliance in crop stewardship to thinking strategically about where the business invests for future growth.”
McLain is a member of both Cargill’s law department and the strategic leadership team of the edible oils group. The group employs approximately 8,000 people across 18 countries and is focused on any oil that is destined for human consumption.
While the legal topics are many and varied, McLain says, “ultimately my job is to manage legal risk and help the business succeed.” She works closely with producers around the world on legal issues they are facing, negotiates agreements with large brands and companies in the food and agricultural industry, and leads a team of global lawyers to manage her group’s legal strategy and partner on specialty areas such as litigation and intellectual property.
McLain joined Cargill 10 years ago and spent her first few years there as a trademark and advertising lawyer. “I really liked that role, but it was much more about deep subject matter expertise on a narrow issue. I knew I wanted to be involved more deeply in the business strategy.”
She continues to be amazed at how meaningful her job is, both personally and professionally. “I have friends in practically every country, which is pretty wonderful,” she says. “And professionally, I am blown away by the reach of Cargill. We have an impact on every aspect of the food supply chain, a responsibility we take seriously. Before joining Cargill, I had not thought that deeply about food supply, its complexities or how significantly it impacts the people and the planet.”
McLain is one of the first members of her family to graduate from college. She enrolled in law school knowing little of what to expect. She says several hands-on, practical experiences were formative, including a judicial externship and serving as student director of a Minnesota Law immigration clinic. She clerked for Senior U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis ’72 and practiced in the mass tort and IP departments at Robins Kaplan prior to joining Cargill. McLain currently serves on the board of directors of The Advocates for Human Rights.
“I’m grateful for the breadth of my legal education,” she says. “For example, I remember reading about maritime law when I was in law school and thinking, ‘I’ll never in a million years use this.’ But then, as a lawyer at Cargill, I got a call about a vessel accident on the sea and my first thought was ‘Holy cow, this is maritime law.’'
Increasingly, McLain’s work is focused on sustainability and innovation. “There is a strong movement underway to use data to overhaul food and agricultural practices, from on-the-farm technology to helping aquafarmers improve their practices,” she says. She’s also deeply involved with advancing safety, human rights, and sustainability in the food supply chain through new technologies such as robotics and digitalization.
Keeping an Eye on International Production and Trade
As a farm kid from northern Iowa, James Johnson ’90 had his sights set on a career in agricultural business. He’d long been interested in the economics of agriculture; an ag law class piqued his interest in the legal side. “I like to say that lawyers put a sharp bend in the nice smooth economist’s curve,” he says. “Law is the fun part of economics.”
Johnson enrolled at Minnesota Law in 1985 but took a break after his first year to enlist in the Peace Corps. He spent two years in the Dominican Republic, then returned to finish his legal degree. Courses with former professor Robert Hudec, an international trade law expert, and studies with visiting professors from Uppsala University in Sweden set him on an international career path.
He joined the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the first person the agency had hired who had a law degree. “It was just a good fit, with my combination of farm, trade, and international experience,” he says.
Today, Johnson is an agricultural economist focused on cotton. He provides a monthly commodity forecast and is FAS’ expert for cotton when policy and trade issues arise. “It’s everything from as specific as responding when Turkey placed anti-dumping duties on U.S. cotton to understanding the economies, farm practices, and textile manufacturing in 120 countries,” he says.
Cotton has been his beat for nearly two decades. “When I was in Brussels, I worked on veterinary issues and sanitary conditions in packing plants,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to deal with sick or dying animals or people. No one has ever gotten sick from eating cotton.”
Johnson says that FAS now actively recruits people with law degrees. “It’s an incredibly useful background to understand the policy side, about how a law gets formulated and where it is in the process in other countries. A law degree also helps you understand how to translate a law or regulation into economic impact. I can’t imagine doing this job without it.”
Providing Counsel From Farm to Table
Sarah Brew ’90 truly has a farm-to-table practice. As leader of Faegre Drinker’s food litigation and regulatory practice, she provides counsel to those who grow and harvest food and to those who get food into the hands of consumers.
She began her career working on blood products litigation, so when a client had a foodborne illness litigation case, she understood the subject of disease organisms and transmission. She learned quickly about pathogens in food processing plants, epidemiology, and genomic sequencing as she served as national counsel in foodborne illness cases occurring in food products from spinach to beef to peanut butter.
Shortly after the foodborne cases, Brew was engaged to help with a food labeling challenge. “It was a time when questions were popping up all over about when you could say your product is natural or ‘lite’ or low-fat,” she says. “Because I had a food background, it was a natural way to expand my practice.”
In addition to providing regulatory counsel, Brew also helps bring new products to market. “There are many issues to sort through, from claiming how it’s produced and what’s in it to labeling and advertising,” she says. “We also have to look at supply chains to make sure a food label can claim something is organic or GMO-free. It’s work that’s really focused on preventing problems as clients develop, grow, and market a product.”
Brew’s clients include Fortune 500 food producers as well as small startups in the natural and organic foods arena and app-based delivery companies. “We’re seeing so much innovation and so many different types of products and ways to reach consumers,” Brew says. “For example, with the whole new category of novel proteins, the FDA is looking at what can be called meat or cheese. And that has led states to enact laws to protect their historic meat and dairy industries. It’s surfacing some interesting constitutional arguments. And as technology changes, it’s creating a lot of fascinating legal issues.”
Her national litigation work continues to grow. Currently, she is representing several food companies in class-action lawsuits challenging food labeling, including an international fast-food company being sued for mislabeling vanilla soft serve ice cream.
“Food is so topical and so relatable,” she says. “It’s also an area of incredible creativity and challenge.”
Feeding a Growing World Population
Few people might count running a beef processing plant as one of their favorite jobs, but Nicole Johnson-Hoffman ’98 does. For three years, she ran such a business for Cargill in Ft. Morgan, Colorado. “These big abattoirs are the mother of all factories,” Johnson-Hoffman says. “And from a legal perspective they are fascinating, because they bring together such complicated regulatory issues. The beef industry is a labor of love for me, and my legal education helped me zero in on the right questions to ask every day.”
Johnson-Hoffman’s path to Ft. Morgan began in 1998 when she joined Cargill fresh out of law school. “I grew up on a hobby farm in central Minnesota, and I’m not from a family of lawyers so I didn’t know much about legal careers when I started law school,” she says. When she and a classmate were discussing on-campus interviews, he told her to sign up for Cargill. “I didn’t even know what Cargill was. Thank goodness he explained the company to me. I had been interested foreign service or governmental work, but Cargill turned out to be a nice fit because of how big and complex the company is.”
She remained at Cargill for 20 years, as in-house counsel and then in lead business roles, including her stint at the Ft. Morgan meat processing plant and several years in Chicago heading up Cargill’s U.S. business with McDonald’s.
Four years ago, she moved to the meat processor OSI Group to run its global McDonald’s business. She was subsequently asked to lead sustainability efforts as well. In early 2021 she moved to Munich, Germany, to head up OSI’s processed foods business in Europe. “Today I spend most of my time thinking about what our customers need, protecting the health and safety of our people, and thinking about what investments we might want to make given where our industry is headed,” she says. “It’s a nice balance of present and future.”
Designing sustainability into products and supply chains is core to her work. “We want to deliver sustainable foods to consumers in invisible ways, so they don’t have to worry about these issues,” she says. “That means we have to incorporate sustainability into intelligent product and supply chain design and take into account the impact our work has on people, the planet, and profitability.”
COVID-19 has inspired her to help build a more resilient food supply. “Anybody who has worked in food supply in the last year during the pandemic knows that the long and complicated supply chains that bring our foods to consumers can be really fragile,” she says. “We have to build better processes and systems to feed the world without layering on costs.”
Navigating a Pandemic
It has been quite a year for Lori Marco ’97, senior vice president of external affairs and general counsel for Hormel Foods. The COVID-19 pandemic presented major challenges for the company, from worker health and safety to vulnerable supply chain issues.
“The word unprecedented is overused these days, but truly that describes this past year,” Marco says. “Literally overnight we had to reconfigure plants to keep workers safe and operations running. We really rallied, and I have to say, we are much stronger today as we see light at the end of the tunnel.”
In February 2021, Hormel announced its intent to acquire the Planters snack nut portfolio from Kraft Heinz, marking the largest acquisition in the company’s 130-year history. “Since we own Skippy peanut butter, peanuts made sense,” Marco says. “This is a wonderful way for us to reach deeper into snacking. It’s another huge project for my team, but pretty exciting.”
Snack foods are one of the important trends Marco and her colleagues are tracking. “We’re also looking at e-commerce business,” she says. “We were leaning into click-and-collect grocery services before the pandemic, but COVID certainly sped up our work.”
Marco has been at Hormel Foods for 17 years, following a six-year stint at Briggs and Morgan as an intellectual property and patent attorney. A law school colleague who was working at Hormel contacted her about a trademark issue and the rest, she says, is history. “I just knew this was the place I should be working.”
A great deal has changed in 17 years, Marco says. “When I joined the company, we still thought of ourselves as a meat company; now we consider ourselves a global branded food company.”
In her role, Marco leads a team that oversees all legal issues, including intellectual property, transactions, litigation, and corporate governance for the company’s global operations. She also leads the regulatory, labeling and formulations, and package design teams. “It’s a ton of fun because you get to understand what’s going into the packages,” she says. “You’re at the cutting edge of innovation, food safety, and labeling requirements.”
Marco says law school helped her learn to multitask and think on her feet, skills that her business requires. “I have to manage a big and varied workload and provide quick legal input. Our business situations often don’t have time for lengthy research. The pace was a little bit of a shock at first, but it’s also really energizing.”
Kathy Graves is a freelance writer based in the Twin Cities.