Community Law and Business Clinic’s work with food systems helps spur rural economic development

Photo of Jess Kimble ('12)

Jess Kimble ('12)

Jess Kimble (’12) grew up on a farm in rural Ohio where she canned food and sold green beans to her aunt’s grocery store for 69 cents a pound.

She left Ohio for Wake Forest University School of Law because she was impressed with the number of clinics the school offered–and the opportunities available in a larger city.

She soon found herself up to her elbows in the legal intricacies involved in setting up a cannery in rural Virginia. The experience that brought her back to her roots also highlighted the difficulties of making rural life economically viable for people who love country living. But Kimble didn’t mind.

“I had firsthand experience,” she said. “This was something near and dear to my heart.”

Virginia Food Works, a nonprofit food processing center in Prince Edward County, Va., is one of about 30 projects pertaining to food systems that the School of Law’s Community Law and Business Clinic has worked on over the past four years, said Steve Virgil, a law professor and director of the clinic. The food processing center allows farmers to can, freeze or preserve their produce for personal or commercial use.

Such projects are engines of economic development for rural areas, where the population is aging, capital for business start-ups is scarce and the infrastructure is often crumbling.

“My work is a real opportunity to help our students think more broadly about their own practices and to think about the societal and historic forces that shape the places where we live,” Virgil said. “Getting food from the farm to the table involves a whole range of relationships that involve legal issues.”

The Pilot Mountain Pride center in Pilot Mountain, which opened in 2010, is another project for law students. The center connects farmers to local people and retailers. It’s also a corporation with an extensive network of contracts with farmers, consumers and distributors.

The students helped the market register its trademark, set up articles of organization for the Secretary of State’s office and oversaw contracts and IRS compliance.

Chris Knopf, the assistant county manager for economic development and tourism in Surry County, said that without the law students’ help, Pilot Mountain Pride would have had a hard time opening its doors.

“They were outstanding, responsive, knowledgeable, and their tasks were always carried out in a timely manner,” Knopf said. “I have recommended their services to countless small businesses and nonprofits over the past couple of years.”

Virgil estimated that the law school provided about $50,000 worth of legal services to the center.

“There are a range of challenges, but in another sense, there’s not another sector that’s as important as agriculture for the long-term interests of society,” he said.

For Kimble, who comes from a family of small business owners, the logistics involved in helping ventures like the cannery and farmer’s market succeed require creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I like the idea that I can be involved with these projects and help people make business decisions that are tied to real people and real things,” she said. “There’s the abstract part of the law that we tend to get caught up in as law students. The clinic brought out the practical side of me that says, ‘Okay, now how do we get this done?’ ”

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