The federal and state regulators probably didn't know it at the time, but they had picked a fight with the wrong farmer.

In 2007, a number of federal and California agencies accused Shasta County cattle rancher Reverge Anselmo of violating regulations during routine pasture maintenance near a creek.

He successfully defended himself and the charges were dropped, but only after 11 months and $65,000 in attorney's fees and significant time and personal grief.

It's a story that occurs all too frequently today as regulatory agencies -- themselves unregulated -- have become more and more aggressive. Many who are unjustly accused just give up, pay the fine and move on.

But Mr. Anselmo was not done, not at all.

Late last month, Alliant Insurance Services launched The Agricultural Regulatory Services, or TARS, a legal defense insurance policy that offers California farmers up to $250,000 in coverage to fight accusations of environmental violations.

Just now being rolled out, TARS stands the best chance of anything yet to fight back against frivolous regulatory overreach.

The typical $2,000- to $2,500-a-year policy, backed by Lloyds of London, offers immediate legal, engineering and other expertise in the event of an accusation. In other words, farmers would have the firepower to fight massive regulatory agencies.

And perhaps equally powerful to discourage frivolous accusations, the policy comes with an entrance gate sign that says, bluntly, "Warning. This operation protected by TARS."

TARS makes clear that it does not cover willful violations of the law. Rogue violators are on their own, as the industry wants them to be.

At a meeting last week to introduce the program at the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, officials cited a 2009 case study where four farms in the San Joaquin Valley received citations. The farms were converting pasture to walnuts and a neighbor complained about the work.

Each farmer received multiple citations alleging "potential" disruption of the tiger salamander and fairy shrimp. The key word is "potential." Three of the four farmers who fought back were cleared. The one that didn't ended up being shut down.

The vast majority of farmers work diligently to meet the requirements of complex regulations, officials said. TARS could be one more tool to prove it.

And though TARS officials didn't say so, what's intriguing about the program is the possibility that it could be duplicated for industries other than agriculture.

As has been seen many times in the North Bay, projects that are years in the making can be stopped by an eleventh-hour lawsuit based on the slimmest of grounds. What about a TARS for them?

That's probably for another day.

But if TARS proves effective, California farmers fearful of being bankrupted by trying to defend unfounded regulatory accusations don't have to wait any longer.

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Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.