DU Alumni

Echoing Green fellowship helps law alumna Rachel Armstrong help farmers

Rachel Armstrong (JD ’12) didn’t plan on becoming a lawyer. The founder of Farm Commons, a nonprofit legal-services firm, and the recent recipient of an $80,000 fellowship from a global entrepreneurship foundation had something more pastoral in mind.

“As a kid, when people asked me what I wanted to be, I would always say I wanted to be a farmer,” Armstrong says. “Or else marry a farmer,” she adds with a laugh.

Armstrong did become a farmer, working for several years after college on mixed vegetable farms outside Madison, Wis. She became immersed in the fast-growing world of community-supported agriculture (CSA). These farms are usually small, collectively run operations that supply weekly boxfuls of fresh produce to paying members and, increasingly, to grocery stores and restaurants.

Armstrong loved the work, but a nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome eventually made it too painful to grip a shovel or operate a spray hose. She left farming but not the field of sustainable agriculture, taking a marketing and business development job with a nonprofit working to increase the use of fresh local produce in restaurants and elsewhere. It was there that Armstrong saw the pressing need for affordable legal services for farmers and, at the same time, the reluctance of many farmers to seek help from a lawyer.

“Farmers definitely have a touch of antiestablishment in them,” she says. “They may not be inclined to ask someone in a suit for advice.”

Armstrong came to two conclusions. First, farmers would benefit greatly from the creation of a legal services organization where they would feel comfortable asking for help, and where the staff and lawyers would actually know something about farms and farming. That’s how Farm Commons was born. The nonprofit startup is dedicated to providing low-cost legal assistance, resources and education to farmers so they can operate stable and resilient enterprises.

The second conclusion? She would have to go to law school.

Of the few law schools with agriculture law programs, none was located in a place Armstrong felt like spending three years of her life. Instead she came to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, drawn not only to life in the Mile High City, but also to the law school’s strong emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning. Armstrong says there were no farm law classes for her to take per se, but “everything I learned, I would be thinking, ‘How does this apply to farmers?’”

Earlier this year, Armstrong earned a coveted fellowship from Echoing Green, a global foundation supporting social entrepreneurs. Only 20 fellows were selected out of thousands of applicants worldwide. The fellowship comes with $80,000 in funding for Farm Commons, to be distributed over two years, plus access to Echoing Green’s vast support and development network. The foundation called Armstrong’s dual background in farming and the law a “powerful combination” for efforts to improve sustainable farm security.

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