Former farm kid Cecelia Neihouser Harper now represents agribusiness clients
Published in 2023 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Rebecca Mariscal on February 22, 2023
Cecelia Neihouser Harper grew up on a crop farm in the Francesville area, surrounded by a rotation of corn and soybeans. The oldest of four, she helped out as needed, learning to drive the tractor that pulled the grain cart in the fall and the anhydrous ammonia tanks for fertilizer in the spring.
It’s not the easiest job for a young teenager. “It’s stressful because you don’t want to hit anything,” she says. “You don’t want to spill any corn or beans.”
But she enjoyed the responsibility. “You feel like you’re the big kid, and you need to go out and do these things,” she says. “I did that stuff in high school, and then for a year or two in college I’d come back on the weekends and help out.”
The family always ended the day around the dinner table—only Dad was occasionally absent if he was still out in the fields. “That was always our tradition. It was a really good one, because we’d get to catch up on the day,” she says. “Family time was really important.”
These days, Harper has one of the only agribusiness-focused legal practices in the state. She knows how hard it can be to schedule a meeting in the spring or fall—planting and harvesting time—and what it’s like to sit through an auction to buy a farm.
“I have a practical understanding of things other than the legal, how something else might be contributing to the situation aside from the legal issue,” she says. “This [helps me] problem-solve an issue and get creative when you’re drafting an agreement.”
She got into law without realizing she’d be able to put her farm experience to use, but after graduating from Valparaiso University School of Law, she discovered that Bennett Boehning & Clary in Lafayette had a large presence in agriculture.
There are also family dynamics. Farms have often been in the family for decades, passed down between generations. Being able to speak from experience helps Harper relate to clients, and make sure they feel heard and understood.
“It just all fell into place,” she says. “Agribusiness is an umbrella that encompasses a lot of different areas of law. You tag on contracts, real estate, business, estate planning. It tackles all of that with the lens of agriculture.” She works on leases between tenant farmers and landowners, succession plans for how the next generation will take over a farm, purchase agreements and occasional HR problems. She also handles entity formations such as LLCs, corporations, partnerships and more.
“There’s a lot of assets,” she says. “Maybe there’s a lot of debt, but there’s also a lot of cash flow.”
And she’s constantly learning. “Every day something a little new, a little quirky, pops up,” Harper says. “Everybody is just a little different. You have to really treat everyone individually because they all have such different backgrounds and different operations. You really have to take time to learn, ‘All right, how do you do things? What’s going on with your farm?’ Because it’s probably not the same as the guy I talked to two days ago.”
Even with areas of agriculture she hasn’t directly experienced—like raising cattle—her practical knowledge makes it easier to jump in: “I know enough to at least ask questions and learn, as opposed to someone else who has no background at all.”
Her dad has retired from active farming, but he still owns the land. Harper’s husband is also a child of family farmers, and the two now own a 55-acre field growing corn and soybeans in Rensselaer. It’s relatively small—her parents’ farm was 5,000 acres—but it’s a family activity. The land will serve as a hands-on learning experience for her kids, now 4 years old and 1 year old.
“We all go up there,” Harper says. “We take turns driving, my husband and I. We get our kids up there and then the idea is they will one day be able to work and learn.”
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