Farmers File Federal Lawsuit Against City’s Free Trade Ban

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 17, 2010

Minneapolis, Minn,—Farmers in Lake Elmo, Minn., should not be threatened with 90 days in jail and $1,000 in fines for selling pumpkins or Christmas trees grown outside city limits.


That is the focus of a federal lawsuit filed today by the Institute for Justice behalf of seven small farmers from across the country.  The suit seeks to overturn a law that forbids farmers in Lake Elmo—a rural city just outside St. Paul—from selling products (even products from their own land) unless they were grown inside the city limits.  On December 1, 2009, Lake Elmo City Council declared that it would begin enforcing the law, which has been on the books for decades but long-ignored—a law that has the potential to harm not only family farms within the city, but those farms they trade with beyond the city limits and consumers as well.

Watch a 3-minute video describing the case or video of the press conference at the launch of the case.

“Lake Elmo cannot forbid farmers from exercising their basic Constitutional right to free trade,” said lead attorney Anthony Sanders of the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter (IJ-MN), a public interest law firm with a history of successfully defending the rights of entrepreneurs.  “This trade ban is a blatant violation the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and we intend to see it struck down in court.”
The U.S. Constitution protects free trade among the states by prohibiting municipalities like Lake Elmo from enacting laws that burden the free exchange of goods.  In numerous cases, the U.S. Supreme Court along with other federal and state courts have struck down laws that restrict the sale of agricultural products that originate in other states.
Keith Bergmann and his family grow and sell plants, flowers, pumpkins and Christmas trees at their Country Sun Farm in Lake Elmo.  In addition to buying Christmas trees from North Carolina and pumpkins from farmers in Nebraska, they often must truck in pumpkins grown on their own farm in Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles outside of Lake Elmo’s city limits.  All of this produce is now illegal to sell in Lake Elmo.
“The city claims it wants to help farmers and keep Lake Elmo rural,” said Keith.  “Instead, it’s driving farmers like us out of business.  That’s why we teamed up with the Institute for Justice to challenge this law.”
Striking down this law is important for farmers like the Bergmanns who engage in “agritourism,” which is selling products from a farm directly to the public.  This growing business has allowed many small farms to survive.  It requires farmers to diversify their farming practices instead of merely raising crops to sell to wholesalers.  Lake Elmo’s selling restrictions do not allow these innovative farms to use the diversity of interstate trade.
“Farmers, just like most people, rely on produce grown elsewhere,” said IJ Minnesota Chapter Staff Attorney Jason Adkins.  “Restricting their ability to survive, innovate and trade with each other makes no sense.  It’s localism run amok.”  
The law not only hurts the Bergmanns, but also the farmers from whom they purchase their products, including co-plaintiff Lynn Smith from North Carolina.  Smith grows Christmas trees on his fourth-generation family farm in Banner Elk, N.C., and sells them all over the country.  Although the recession has made it hard for Smith to sell his trees, he sold a quarter of last year’s crop to the Bergmanns, and would like to again in 2010.
“I have a hard enough time finding customers in this economic climate,” said Smith.  “Now the city of Lake Elmo has threatened to take away one of my most important clients.”
The same is true of Daniels Produce in Columbus, Nebraska, where Andy and Tannie Daniels run their farm.  In years when the Bergmanns’ pumpkin crop fails due to bad weather, the family turns to Daniels Produce for extra pumpkins for Lake Elmo consumers.
“The Bergmanns have been great customers for years,” said co-plaintiff Andy Daniels.  “I’m happy to help fellow farmers when their crop doesn’t work out.  Now it seems Lake Elmo’s government thinks I should stay away.”
Throughout the country, municipalities are trying to suppress interstate—and even intrastate—agricultural sales.  The law in Lake Elmo is one of the most brazen examples of local interests seeking to prevent farmers from selling agricultural products, but it is certainly not the only one.  For example, a farmer in Longview, Wash., recently ran into trouble with her city council because, along with her own products, she sold produce grown by other farmers.  In Michigan, local governments have restricted farmers to such an extent that the state government has had to step in and issue new regulations allowing sales from farms where the farmers sell some products grown on-site and some grown elsewhere.  
Richard Bergmann et al. v. City of Lake Elmo, is the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter’s tenth lawsuit in its campaign to restore property rights, economic liberty and free speech under the Minnesota state and U.S. constitutions.  Opened in 2005, IJ-MN is one of four state chapters of the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit public interest law firm founded in 1991 to advance economic liberty, free speech, property rights and educational choice.