Staff Spotlight: Sarah Vaile
Sarah celebrating on a long-distance trail run near Los Angeles, CA
Our team at Farm Commons is made up of wildly talented, passionate, food and farm loving leaders. This month, we’ll be featuring a staff member each week so you can learn more about the gals that make our farm law educational programming happen every day, in all the ways.
This week, meet Sarah Vaile, our staff attorney!
Where’s your hometown? I was born in Taylorville, Illinois, a small farm town south of Springfield. When I was six I moved to Marion, Indiana, a somewhat bigger farm (and factory) town near Ft. Wayne. I lived there until I left for college at Indiana University in Bloomington, so even though I was born in Taylorville, Marion feels more like my hometown. I clocked countless hours running along the riverside “walkway,” sitting on buses going to and from cross-country meets in other small towns, and running on courses adjacent to cornfields. I attended hundreds of high school basketball games, and lived in constant fear of tornadoes.
When did your interest in food and agriculture begin? My interest in food and agriculture goes back a long way. Funny that I’m from the Midwest yet I wasn’t at all familiar with fresh fruit or vegetables. I didn’t like them. They didn’t taste very good out of a can. My real introduction to “real” food came after college, when I lived in England. There I discovered farmers markets and local food, and learned that I actually liked carrots! I learned about GMOs and about how England and most of Europe was banning them, while the US was welcoming them with open arms. It was an entirely new concept.
When I returned to the US, I landed in Minneapolis, a city well known for its local and natural food scene. I began working at a food co-op, and learned more about the troubling aspects of modern agriculture. Through the Sierra Club’s “Keep Pigs Off Drugs” campaign, I found out about confined animal feeding operations (“CAFOs”). I was deeply troubled by what had happened to agriculture, and wondered where all the family farmers had gone.
This sent me on the trajectory towards law school, with the goal of stopping industrial agriculture in its tracks. I attended Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, where I focused on learning about litigation and advocacy tools for fighting industrial agriculture. I participated in the school’s well-known environmental litigation clinic, trying my hand at Clean Water Act litigation on behalf of our client Riverkeeper, and wrote a law review article on regulating CAFOs through the Clean Air Act, which was later published.
After law school my heart took me to southern Oregon, but the jobs in the sustainable agriculture field were few and far between in my new state. So, I tried other things – law clerk, public defender, land use attorney, civil law attorney. My longest running position was 5 ½ years at a small law firm, where I handled family law, small business and estate planning and administration cases.
I knew the work I was doing at the firm was serving people, and that felt good, but I needed to get back to my food and farm roots. Last summer a friend of mine forwarded me the Farm Commons e-news, which mentioned that they were looking to hire some attorneys. I immediately contacted Rachel, Farm Commons’ director, and here we are!
What’s your role at Farm Commons? As an attorney with Farm Commons, my work revolves around researching and learning about all aspects of farm law, and then conveying this information to our farmer audience in a way that is relevant, accessible and not too overwhelming. It’s a tall order. Farm law includes so much - land leasing and purchasing, employment laws, food safety regulations, zoning regulations, insurance and liability, sales contracts, business structures. Plus, it’s different in every state. We cover the entire country, so it’s quite a job building out an entire library of resources for every state!
I love being a part of an organization that’s adding real value for farmers, and I can see this, in real time, looking a the sheer number of farmers who are downloading our materials, and how truly thankful farmers who attend our in-person workshops are for breaking down farm law for them. I like knowing I’m helping fill this knowledge gap for farmers, empowering them with information that could make the difference between packing up and going home, and staying on to farm for a lifetime.
Alright, most important question – what’s your favorite vegetable and way to prepare it? My family belongs to a CSA, and opening our CSA box and seeing what veggies we got is like Christmas every week for us. One of my favorite things in the world is to take raw produce and transform it into something mouthwatering and delicious - usually roasted. If I had to pick a favorite vegetable, I’d say peppers. All kinds. I love taking raw peppers, rubbing them with olive oil and broiling or roasting them. It’s particularly satisfying to see what happens to peppers, as they grow soft, slightly charred and almost turn into a different thing altogether. And the smell…I love to eat them right out of the oven, or stuff them with rice and cheese, or cut them up and put them in tacos.