When Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced the closure of all nonessential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Laura Beth Resnick immediately began to worry.
Resnick owns Butterbee Farm, a 5-acre farm in Baltimore County that supplies sustainably grown local flowers to florists. The farm operates year-round, growing over a hundred varieties of blossoms, including feverfew and larkspur in the spring; zinnias and snapdragons in the summer; and dahlias, celosia, and heirloom mums in the fall.
Florists in Baltimore, Washington, and Northern Virginia have come to depend on her fresh local blooms, which travel fewer than 50 miles from farm to their destination. In fact, demand for Butterbee Farm’s flowers has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the breakdown of the supply chain of the global floral industry. Currently, Butterbee Farm is one of the only flower games in town.
The governor’s March 23 announcement was a dark day for Resnick, who wondered whether she would have to shut down her operation and lay off her staff. “We weren’t really sure what to do,” she recalls. “We don’t grow vegetables, so I wasn’t sure if we were essential.”
The lack of clarity prompted her to reach out to Sarah Everhart, JD, Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI) senior legal specialist and managing director of the program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Since 2013, ALEI, a University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State program, has been helping Maryland farmers navigate state, federal, and local laws that impact their operations. ALEI is composed of the combined legal and agricultural expertise of the Carey School of Law, the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
The onset of COVID-19 has made ALEI an even more important resource for farmers grappling with rapidly changing regulations. “As soon as the governor started shutting down businesses, we started getting calls from the agricultural community about how this was going to affect their operations,” Everhart says.
ALEI’s working group quickly mobilized to answer individual questions but also created a frequently updated COVID-19 Resources webpage to address common issues such as paid sick leave for agricultural employees, force majeure clauses in contracts, and the newly instituted federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Everhart says ALEI legal specialists have been keeping their ears to the ground to ensure they are providing answers to farmers’ concerns in real time. They anticipate calls in the coming weeks from Delmarva poultry farmers who will be impacted by the closure of production plants and the subsequent disruption of the supply chain.
“The issues are all over the map,” says Paul Goeringer, JD, LLM, MS, extension legal specialist, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Maryland, and an ALEI member. Goeringer has assisted farmers with queries ranging from labor issues to managing contracts canceled due to COVID-19. “We’re dealing with questions as they come up,” he says.
In addition to his role at ALEI, Goeringer hosts the popular weekly Maryland Risk Management Education Podcast, which brings in agriculture experts from across the country to discuss important farming issues. Recent topics include Poultry Markets During Coronavirus: A Conversation with Dr. Jordan Shockley and a podcast about the importance of estate planning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Resnick’s case, her answer came almost two days later when Everhart emailed her updated guidance clarifying that, in addition to farms being declared essential businesses, nurseries and greenhouses, although subject to social distancing requirements, also were considered essential businesses. The days of not knowing were “an awful, really sad and scary time,” she says. Armed with information from ALEI, “We realized we were good to go. It was such a relief,” Resnick adds.
As a small business owner, Resnick says she is grateful for the service that ALEI provides. “We’re a small farm, we don’t make a lot of money, and lawyers are expensive, so having ALEI as a resource is a huge comfort.”