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The 3 biggest farm liability threats (and how to manage them)

5 min read

Farms are not immune to financial hardship, and like any other industry, farm managers must navigate different issues to survive and – ideally – thrive.

Todd J. Janzen

President Janzen Agricultural Law LLC Indianapolis, Ind.

Agricultural technology liabilities

The adoption of new technology is often meant to decrease on-farm risk literally and financially. When autosteer hit the market, it increased the precision of the tractor and therefore decreased fuel, seed, fertilizer and pesticide usage. Likewise, autosteer decreased the risk that an inattentive farm operator might run off-course, injuring people, animals or crops. There are instances, however, where technology adoption may increase farmers’ liability.

Farming in the cloud poses a new risk. Data has long been shared with accountants and crop advisors, but these are trusted individuals. Movement of cloud data puts the information into outsiders’ hands – people who have no connection to the farm. A person may know their sales rep from an ag tech platform, but that person may have nothing to do with their company’s data practices. Like it or not, legal fine print has replaced the handshake. Read it, understand it and stay current on ways to protect your farm's data.

Many agriculture data platforms offer analytic tools that make prescriptions and suggestions. These platforms use proprietary algorithms that crunch numbers and offer supposed top-notch insight. But when the platform recommendation is wrong, taking that advice may increase risk. A weather app may advise on the optimal time to spray, but it may not know real-time field conditions or respect a pesticide label’s nuanced instructions. Always double-check production recommendations and ground-truth them in the field.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another realm with increased associated risk. To work properly, AI must be fed lots of training data and supervised to work as intended, just like an employee. An autonomous tractor that learns a field’s boundaries, slope, and terrain hazards may require a few passes before it really understands. Until then, a machine may be more dangerous than an operator.

Ask yourself and your sales rep whether adopting new tech will increase or decrease your farm’s liability risk.

Eric Johnson

Partner and leader Agribusiness and food Miller Thomson LLP Regina, Sask.

Environmental liabilities

Canadian and global public opinion has shifted and continues to shift towards a world of greater environmental sustainability and stewardship, which has a continuing impact on farming operations and agricultural practices. Environmental issues affecting agriculture are regulated by three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal. However, the provincial level provides the primary source of regulation.

Climate change, water supply and soil quality pose a more significant environmental threat to Canadian farms. Despite ever-improving agronomic practices, climate change seems to be driving an increase in extreme weather events that directly impact crop yield, livestock production and forage production. The federal and provincial governments offer free resources to help farmers adapt agricultural practices to thrive despite such challenges.

The threat of pollution, and the corresponding potential liability to farmers, requires constant vigilance. The law in Canada at every level operates to protect land, air and water from pollution. In addition, significant liability threats to farms include the interference with another landowner’s use or enjoyment of their land, which may include a neighbour or another farm. Risks include water or air pollution from livestock manure, pesticide application or cutting trees along a boundary. As a result of these risks, for example, the rules surrounding pesticide use are strict. The Federal Pest Control Products Act has detailed requirements on how pesticides must be applied. Something as simple as accidentally allowing any discharge, drift or runoff of pesticide to affect waterworks that would make the water unsafe for human consumption may lead to an offence.

Farmers need to remain mindful of the effect of their operations on neighbouring land and surrounding water and air and follow evolving best practices of reasonable and prudent farming to minimize liability resulting from the operation of the farm.

Jennifer Wright

Senior HR advisor and Stakeholder engagement specialist Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council Ottawa, Ont.

Human resources liabilities

Managing employees is complex, and most Canadian producers are neither expert HR managers, nor can they hire a dedicated HR management professional. This raises the risk of making mistakes and increases liabilities. It’s important that producers have support and guidance for this crucial but often forgotten farm business management area.

Farm managers must be aware of common HR liabilities. There are the legal requirements, which extend to human rights, that every employer must adhere to in Canada. This means you must ensure all employees have an employment contract that includes the position title and level, job description, salary, benefits, starting date, probationary period, length of contract (if applicable) and any other employment conditions. Ensure it’s in line with all applicable legislation, including minimum wage requirements, age restrictions on certain types of work and maximum allowable set hours of work.

Hand out written employment policies reflective of the most current applicable employment legislation (federal and provincial or territorial). You must ensure disciplinary and termination processes meet all legal requirements and take every reasonable step so proper jurisdictional health and safety protocols are implemented on the farm.

Last, be sure to support a workplace in which people of any race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, or disability may work without discrimination.

It’s always recommended that producers seek legal advice around employment issues, particularly to review employment contracts and policies. Doing so before disciplinary action or termination of an employee is advised to reduce the risk of legal action. The investment in this advice can save you from making serious errors that cost you time, money and, above all, legal risk.

Help is available to Canadian producers for all aspects of staff management, including online tools, templates and webinars in CAHRC's AgriHR Toolkit.

From an AgriSuccess article by Trevor Bacque.

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