Recently a bill came in the mail claiming that Amy Rowbottom, owner of Crooked Face Creamery in Norridgewock, owed $2,000 for a trademark violation.

Rowbottom had just filed for trademark protection of her business’ name and logo, so the bill was as confusing as it was panic-inducing. She quickly got on the phone with an attorney recommended to her by the Legal Food Hub.

“‘Amy, don’t worry about that,'” she recalls the lawyer telling her in her free consultation. “‘Now that your (trademark) paperwork is in, you’re going to get picked up by scammers.'”

Rowbottom is one of the many Maine food entrepreneurs who has asked for help from the Legal Food Hub as she grows her artisan cheesemaking business. The hub, a project of the Conservation Law Foundation, is the winner of our Counselor Award.

The organization links farmers and food entrepreneurs who meet certain income guidelines with lawyers in their communities who will work with them pro bono on legal issues that they either lack time or money to deal with, or just never realized they needed to address.

These issues range from leasing farm land to the legalities of hiring seasonal workers – do farm apprentices need to be paid, for example, and must the farm provide food and housing? The attorneys may also help entrepreneurs choose the right business structure for their start-ups, or show them how to protect their intellectual property, including recipes.

“Often farms find themselves in the fortunate position of being able to expand, but they do need to worry about the potential liability of inviting the public onto their land, whether it’s for pick-you-own berries or hayrides,” said Phelps Turner, a CLF Maine staff attorney.

Amy Rowbottom, owner of Crooked Face Creamery in Norridgewock, has found the legal help she’s obtained from the Legal Food Hub invaluable. Photo courtesy of Legal Food Hub.

For farmers and entrepreneurs operating on slim margins, the service can be a godsend. Rowbottom, for example, knew she wanted to protect her business’ name and logo from being stolen, but “I just had no idea how to go about it, and the cost was intimidating,” she said.

Rowbottom learned about the Legal Food Hub at a business boot camp in Massachusetts last winter. She initially met with Dave McConnell, an attorney with the Portland firm Perkins Thompson, who has worked with the Legal Food Hub from the start. He specializes in trademark and intellectual property law, and has often worked with food-and-beverage businesses, including craft breweries.

“It’s an increasingly complex and overlapping web of regulations that food entrepreneurs have to deal with, particularly when you’re starting a new business,” McConnell said. “You’ve got to figure out where you’re going to put your dollars, and maybe you don’t have the money to file trademark applications. But it’s critical for folks like Crooked Face Creamery as they’re building their brand.”

The Legal Food Hub is in four New England states, and recently announced plans to establish a program in Vermont later this year. Their network includes 47 law firms in Maine. They’ve handled 153 cases so far in Maine, and 375 in New England.

“Often when a firm partners with you, you’re benefiting from more than just one attorney in that firm…in potentially a number of practice areas,” Turner said.

Rowbottom is tapping into other legal minds from the network herself. She’s moving her business to the Somerset Gristmill in Skowhegan, and she needs a lawyer to look over the lease. “It’s a huge help because for start-ups there are so many expenses involved with equipment and infrastructure,” she said. “The legal side is a whole other beast.”

Another aspect of the Legal Food Hub’s mission is providing educational workshops for farmers and food entrepreneurs – usually during the Maine Agricultural Trade Show or the Common Ground Fair – and continuing education for attorneys on topics such as food safety.

“We’re committed because we see that farmers and food entrepreneurs play a critical role in our community, so by supporting them we’re able to promote a sustainable and just food system,” Turner said. “For CLF, that’s really important because that means it helps create a healthy climate and a healthy environment, but also a strong economy in Maine.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

 


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