Quit horsin’ around! Your 38-year-old horse doesn’t make you a farmer.

By: Administrator on March 10th, 2017

By Ryan Leemkuil

Does a single horse grazing on your property make you a farmer? 

Not so, said a majority of the Iowa Supreme Court in Porter v. Harden.  The case arose from an eviction dispute.  Richard and Janice Harden lived for many years on a rural property in Wayne County.  They weren’t alone.  The Hardens’ 38-year-old horse lived there too.  (In case you’re wondering, that’s a pretty old horse.  According to Wikipedia, the oldest horse ever, Old Billy, lived to be 62. In more modern times, Sugar Puff holds the crown at 56. But the typical life expectancy is around 25 to 30 years, so it’s fair to say the Hardens’ horse—whose name the opinion does not provide—was a resilient creature.)

But back to the case.  The Porters, who owned the property, sought to evict the Hardens.  The Hardens responded by claiming they had a farm tenancy, which requires additional hurdles to terminate.  And what was the basis for this claim?  You guessed it—the old gray mare.  The law, you see, defines a farm tenancy as one that involves livestock,  and livestock is defined as “an animal.”  “An” animal, the Hardens claimed, is one animal–or one old horse.

The Supreme Court didn’t buy it. Despite the “an animal” language, the Court read the statute to include a kind of “primary purpose” test, meaning that the land must be “mostly or primarily devoted to crops or livestock.”  If such a test weren’t imposed, the Court explained, a city dweller with chicken or a small garden could proclaim their property a “farm” and invoke the law’s more stringent lease termination procedures. 

Justice Wiggins dissented.  He thought the statute was clear.  It says “an animal” and a horse—even a 38-year-old one—is “an animal.”  In his view, the Court’s primary purpose test simply created uncertainty.  What about hobby farmers or people who farm but nonetheless work jobs in the city?  Are those farm properties?  For now, we just know one old horse isn’t enough.

*Ryan Leemkuil is legal counsel at Fareway  Stores and before that was an attorney at Nyemaster Goode.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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