“Food has implications for how we treat each other.”
Gretchen Elsner works in food and public interest law because it’s what she feels called to do. Growing up on a ranch, she watched and helped with all kinds of food production as a child; her family had a garden and fruit trees and raised cattle. After law school, when Gretchen began to grow her own food as an adult, she realized how difficult that work is, and was inspired to use her professional work to support farmers and food producers. This seemed like an area where lawyers were “not working to define policy,” and she appreciates that food is interdisciplinary, with implications for the environment, labor, animal welfare, and “how we treat each other.”
In her current role as a solo practitioner, Gretchen represents a diverse clientele. She works with farmers and food businesses as a general practitioner, from leases to labor law. She also represents a state political party in New Mexico and several nonprofit organizations that work in the area of agriculture, such as the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute. She’s currently involved in litigation, representing several national nonprofit organizations to enforce the state of California’s statute prohibiting consumer fraud in a case where a livestock production facility is presenting itself as a small family farm. These are very different clients and a range of types of work, but Gretchen says that there is some overlap. She’s able to advance farmers’ interests, for example, through her work with agriculture nonprofits as well as by working with farmers directly.
A big victory early in her career—drafting and lobbying for legislation that was successfully passed during her time as staff attorney for the Southwest Women’s Law Center—helped Gretchen build confidence while providing her with an instructive lesson on “the process” of government. Other than this, Gretchen credits experience and learning on the job when she thinks about how she developed her expertise. She had three or four different jobs during her first ten years as an attorney, and learned a new skill set at each one. When she began her own practice, she had a wealth of experience to draw from. And although she works by herself, Gretchen recognizes the value of learning from others, and suggests to attorneys interested in this work to “co-counsel whenever you can.” She also recommends that attorneys take the time to become clear on their own values so that they can choose clients whose basic goals they share, or at least understand. By balancing their own values with representing another entity, Gretchen says, an attorney can be a “zealous advocate” for their clients.
The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems is an initiative of Vermont Law School, and this toolkit provides general legal information for educational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute, and should not be relied upon, for legal advice. Each farmer’s circumstances are unique, state laws vary, and the information contained herein is specific to the time of publication. Accordingly, for legal advice, please consult an attorney licensed in your state.