In 1933, Edward A. O’Neal, head of the Farm Bureau Federation, warned a Senate committee that, “Unless something is done for the American farmer we will have a revolution in the countryside within less than 12 months.”

As farm prices fell by more than 50 percent, farm foreclosures reached record numbers, and violence erupted throughout the farm belt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that the agriculture industry was in dire need of federal support.

As a result, FDR developed a system of federal farm programs under the New Deal that provided production controls and economic support to farmers on the brink of desperation. 

What originated as a temporary structure of income support for agriculture has become a mainstay in U.S. farm policy. Today, commodity programs, crop insurance and disaster relief programs, and farm credit programs operate through legal agreements between farmers and the federal government, thus creating a significant role for the law in American agriculture. 

The federal farm program was but one legal issue that helped prompt the University of Arkansas School of Law to begin developing a graduate legal program focused on the study of agricultural law.

In 1980, the University envisioned a curriculum that would examine the unique laws and exceptions governing the agricultural industry. For instance, agricultural workers are excluded from many of the benefits and protections provided to workers in other industries; however, agriculture is also the only industry that receives billions of dollars in federal farm program benefits for farmers who produce certain favorable crops – like corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.

The inaugural class was welcomed to the LL.M. program in Agricultural Law in 1981. With the Farm Crisis of the 1980s looming on the horizon, the program could not have come at a more opportune time.

As commodity prices and farm values dropped and many farmers plunged into bankruptcy, early graduates of the program immediately realized the value of their degree and the important relationship between agriculture and the law. 

Over the past 3 decades, the program has continued to grow and gain recognition, offering a rigorous course load that covers such topics as agricultural policy-making and the impact of the federal budget, international agriculture, agricultural labor law, and crop  insurance and disaster assistance, all taught by professors at the University of Arkansas School of Law, visiting professors who teach special condensed courses, and nationally recognized scholars and practitioners.

Program graduates now serve in private practice, at government regulatory agencies at both state and federal levels, in public policy, and at universities across the country. Currently, alumni work in 35 different states and 15 foreign countries. 

In 2009, the program’s name was changed to the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law, marking the long-awaited advent of integrating food law and agricultural law into a discrete area of study.

Prof. Susan Schneider, program director and full-time faculty member, proposed the change in light of the dramatically increased consumer interest in food safety, food labeling, and where and how food is produced. “The inclusion of food law in our curriculum allows us to study the full range of legal issues – from ‘farm to fork’ – and to consider our food system from the perspective of all of the interests along the way,” she said.

Schneider and other faculty members also expanded the list of courses, which explore issues spanning the spectrum of food and agricultural law, including biotechnology, sustainability, farm finance and credit, food safety, and the environment. As the program brochure notes, LL.M. candidates learn about “the laws that apply to the production, marketing, and sale of the food we eat, the natural fibers we wear, and increasingly, the bio-fuel that runs our cars.” 

More than 30 years after its founding, the University of Arkansas law school’s program in Food and Agricultural Law remains the only LL.M. program in the U.S. specializing in food and agriculture. This year it attracted more applicants than ever before; the Class of 2011 is the largest and one of the most diverse classes in the program’s history.  It includes a sustainable development director for Wal-Mart, a former FAA regional environmental counsel, a creator of a natural fiber clothing line, and a professor of law from South Korea.

Schneider notes that, “Interest in our program is at an unprecedented level, and, I am confident that our graduates will be among the leaders in creating the law and policy of our food system going forward.”

Along with several of my fellow classmates, I came to the LL.M. program to study food safety. I was appalled when I first read CDC statistics of foodborne and food-related illness and death in the United States. The fact that from 6 million and 81 million people in this country will suffer from a foodborne illness and that as many as 9 thousand may die is a statistic I was not willing to accept. So, like many a young lawyer on a crusade to seek justice and change and to help others, I am participating in this program to bring about change in our nation’s food regulatory system. 

When I complete my degree, I hope to work as an advocate for an improved federal regulatory scheme that would provide for greater food traceability, mandatory labeling for all genetically modified foods, and more frequent inspections of food facilities. 

For more information about the LL.M. Program in Food and Agricultural Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, please visit our blog or follow us on Twitter.

Editor’s note:  Claire Mitchell is the recipient of the Marler Clark Graduate Assistantship at the University of Arkansas School of Law’s LL.M. Program in Food and Agricultural Law and will be reporting for Food Safety News.