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Farm Law Project Assists Attorneys, Their Clients

July 18, 1989

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) _ Attorney Ervin Lee has been known to accept chickens from financially strapped farmers as payment for his advice.

In exchange for taking the reduced payment, Lee, of Minot, gets free legal research and information from the state’s Farm Law Project.

″Cash is always better,″ Lee said this week. ″(But) if people can afford to pay whatever, I believe that’s what’s important.″

Two agencies, North Dakota Legal Services and Legal Assistance of North Dakota, founded the Farm Law Project in 1985 to provide free resources for lawyers who agree to represent North Dakota farmers at reduced rates.

″Until recently, very few attorneys concentrated on agricultural law,″ said Jason Coffel, a spokesman for the project. ″But now, since last year’s drought and the falling-out of the agriculture economy, it’s become a necessity.″

Jim Fitzsimmons, director of North Dakota Legal Services, said the project helped both poor farmers who need legal advice and attorneys who have questions about farm law.

″A lot of farmers don’t go to lawyers,″ he said. ″What we’re trying to do is generate a body of attorneys who will work with farm clients.″

Under the Farm Law Project, Minot attorney Paul Temanson conducts background research for cases and provides up-to-date information on farm- related law through newsletters and public forums. He also works directly on some cases.

Attorneys who use the service reduce their fees however they see fit, Fitzsimmons said, adding, ″Sometimes it’s unbelievable; they don’t charge a thing.″

One of the Farm Law Project’s more notable cases is a 1987 lawsuit against the Farmers Home Administration that contests the agency’s practice of confiscating government crop subsidy payments of some farmers who are in debt to the agency. While a ruling is pending, there has been a nationwide moratorium on such confiscations.

The Farm Law Project is unique to North Dakota and assists as many as 350 attorneys each year, Fitzsimmons said. He had no precise figures on the number of farmers who benefit from the information.

Comments about the project have been generally positive, Fitzsimmons said. ″Attorneys I’ve heard from say, ’Don’t let this thing go,‴ he said.

″It’s important to have somebody watching one specific area and making that information readily available,″ Lee said.

Coffel said the project, which is financed by private grants, costs between $35,000 and $42,000 a year. Two grants expire Sept. 1, but a $7,500 emergency grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., should carry the project through the end of the year, he said.

Despite the project’s tight finances right now, Coffel said he was not too worried about obtaining grant money for 1990.

″I’m confident about the program,″ he said. ″I have every reason to believe it’s going to be up and running again next year.″

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