JASON M. BARTEN, Employee/Appellant, v. THOMAS FRIELER, UNINSURED, Employer, and GRINNELL SELECT INS. CO., BLUECROSS/BLUESHIELD OF MINN., ANESTHESIA ASSOCS. OF ST. CLOUD, ST. CLOUD HOSP., and MEDICA HEALTH PLANS, Intervenors, and SPECIAL COMP. FUND.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
MARCH 30, 2011
EXCLUSIONS FROM COVERAGE - FAMILY FARM. Given the record, viewed in conjunction with the applicable statute and case law, the compensation judge properly concluded that the employer qualified as a family farm, exempt from workers’ compensation liability, and that the employee’s injuries were therefore not compensable under the workers’ compensation act. The fact that the employee was working on farmland leased by a partnership, as opposed to an individual farmer, does not disqualify the employer from the family farm exclusion.
Determined by: Wilson, J., Stofferahn, J., Johnson, C.J.
Compensation Judge: Gary P. Mesna
Attorneys: Raymond R. Peterson, McCoy, Peterson & Jorstad, Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellant. Thomas J. Christenson, Quinlivan & Hughes, St. Cloud, MN, for the Respondent. John R. Baumgarth, Dep’t of Labor & Indus., Duluth, MN, for the Special Compensation Fund.
DEBRA A. WILSON, Judge
Jason Barten appeals from the compensation judge’s decision that he is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits because he was employed by a family farm on the date of his injuries. We affirm.
In early 2006, Thomas Frieler hired Jason Barten to work for him as a farm laborer. In this capacity, Barten performed field work and other related activities, such as driving trucks and hauling grain, earning $27,150 for his work that year. In previous years, Frieler’s sons had helped on the farm, but Frieler had never before hired anyone to assist him with farm work.
On November 1, 2006, Barten was injured in a motor vehicle accident in the course and scope of his employment with Frieler. The issue in this case is whether Frieler is exempt from workers’ compensation liability under statutory provisions applicable to certain family farms. The answer to that question turns, in part, on the nature of Frieler’s farming operations.
Frieler grew up on his father’s farm in central Stearns County. Sometime after graduating from high school in 1978, Frieler, along with his brother Jim, took over the family farm and also purchased a neighboring farm. Jim lives in the original family homestead; Frieler lives on the neighboring farm. Frieler apparently farms land he owns and nearby land he leases, individually, and Frieler and his brother farm land they own jointly in a partnership known as Frieler Brothers Farms. Frieler estimated that, in 2006, he farmed about 700 acres of land in all, growing small grain, corn, and soybeans.
Frieler, his brother, and Frieler’s son Dustin also perform work for Frieler’s first cousin, David Schoenborn, who operates a custom farming business called Spring Water Acres. That is, Schoenborn offers harvesting services and other field work, such as baling and chopping silage, to area farmers, for pay. He apparently also raises crops on his own land. Frieler, Frieler’s brother, and Frieler’s son all help Schoenborn with the custom farm work in exchange for free use of Schoenborn’s farm implements for their own farming operations. The arrangement between the Frielers and Schoenborn is longstanding and informal. No written agreements were drafted, and no money changed hands. Schoenborn owned most of the large farm equipment, and the Frielers performed much of the custom farming labor. After his hire by Frieler, Barten also helped with Schoenborn’s custom farming activities, but Barten was directed and always paid by Frieler, as usual, for this work.
At some point, a neighboring farmer named Brian Faber offered to lease his land to Frieler. Subsequently, in February of 2006, Frieler, his son, and Schoenborn formed a partnership, which they called the Faber Land Partnership, and signed a rental agreement to lease 300 acres of land from Faber for 2006, 2007, and 2008. Schoenborn again provided most of the equipment, and the Frielers were responsible for much of the labor, with expenses and profits to be split evenly between Frieler, his son, and Schoenborn. Barten’s injuries occurred on a day he was working to harvest corn on the land leased by the Faber Land Partnership.
Barten claimed entitlement to benefits from Frieler, who was uninsured for workers’ compensation liability, and the matter came on hearing before a compensation judge on August 13, 2010. Evidence included testimony by Barten, Frieler, Frieler’s son Dustin, and Schoenborn, as well as a small amount of documentary evidence concerning the Faber Land Partnership and Spring Water Acres.
In a decision issued on September 30, 2010, the compensation judge concluded that Barten was employed by a family farm, as defined by statute, on the date of his injury, and that his injury was therefore not compensable under the workers’ compensation act. Barten appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether “the findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted.” Minn. Stat. § 176.421, subd. 1 (2010). Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, “they are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984). Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed. Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240. Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, “unless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.” Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
“[A] decision which rests upon the application of a statute or rule to essentially undisputed facts generally involves a question of law which [the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals] may consider de novo.” Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607, 608 (W.C.C.A. 1993).
Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.041, subd. 1(b), the workers’ compensation act does not apply to persons employed by a “family farm” as defined by Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 11a, which provides as follows:
Subd. 11a. Family farm. (a) “Family farm” means any farm operation which pays or is obligated to pay cash wages, exclusive of machine hire, to farm laborers for services rendered during the preceding calendar year in an amount:
1) less than $8,000.00; or
2) less than the statewide average annual wage as described in subdivision 20 when the farm operation has total liability and medical payment coverage equal to $300,000 and $5,000, respectively, under a farm liability insurance policy, and the policy covers injuries to farm laborers.
b) For purposes of this subdivision, farm laborer does not include any spouse, parent or child, regardless of age, of a farmer employed by the farmer, or any executive officer of a family farm corporation as defined in section 500.24, subdivision 2, or any spouse, parent or child, regardless of age, of such an officer employed by that family farm corporation, or other farmers in the same community or members of their families exchanging work with the employer. Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, a farm laborer shall not be considered as an independent contractor for the purposes of this chapter; provided that a commercial baler or commercial thresher shall be considered an independent contractor.
In the present case, Frieler paid Barten $27,150.00 for his work in 2006, the year in which Barten was injured. However, Frieler did not pay and was not obligated to pay any cash wages in 2005, that is, for “services rendered during the preceding calendar year,” as specified by Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 11a. As such, Frieler’s 2005 farming operations stayed below the cash wage limit for family farms established by statute. This fact is undisputed. Barten argues, however, that the family farm exclusion is nevertheless inapplicable in this case, because Barten’s “work was not being done to benefit the family farm of Thomas Frieler but rather to benefit the [Faber Land] partnership,” which, Barten maintains, was “an independent business entity.” According to this argument, since Barten “was not working at a family farm that was owned and operated individually by Thomas Frieler at the time of his injury,” Barten’s injuries are not excluded from coverage under the workers’ compensation act. We are not persuaded.
Barten’s central premise appears to be that, because the Faber Land Partnership is just that - - a partnership - - it cannot qualify as a family farm. However, Barten cites no authority to support this proposition. More importantly, we find no compelling reason to distinguish between otherwise similar farming operations based solely on the business form chosen by the farmer. The statute by its terms defines a qualifying family farm as “any farm operation” obligated to pay less than the specified level of cash wages during the preceding calendar year. Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 11a (emphasis added).
Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 11a, has been construed as demonstrating legislative intent “to limit the exclusion to prevent hardship only to those small farm operations with a minimal amount of labor requiring cash wages,” primarily protecting “those small farm operations basically run by resident family members.” Meyering v. Wessels, 383 N.W.2d 670, 673, 38 W.C.D. 482, 485 (Minn. 1986). In the case before us, Frieler, the employer, was in partnership with his son and his first cousin, to plant and harvest crops on acres nearby the farmland he himself owned, farmed, and lived on. Given these circumstances, we cannot conclude that the judge erred by characterizing the Faber Land Partnership as a “part of [Frieler’s] family farm operation.”
Barten also argues that Frieler’s significant involvement with Spring Water Acres means that Frieler in reality operated a “commercial enterprise,” obligating him to provide workers’ compensation coverage for his employee, Barten. We would note that all “[f]arming is by its nature a commercial enterprise.” Heidtke v. Zimmerman Seed, 62 W.C.D. 655, 664 (W.C.C.A. 2002). Furthermore, while Frieler provided labor in exchange for use of Spring Water Acres equipment, he received no cash payments of any kind from any of the custom farming work contracted by Schoenborn, and he had no formal interest in Schoenborn’s business. In any event, as the compensation judge noted, Barten was not performing custom farm work for Schoenborn at the time of his injury. Rather, he was working for Frieler on land leased by the Faber Land Partnership. Given the circumstances of Barten’s injury, Frieler’s provision of labor to Spring Water Acres is essentially irrelevant.
Frieler expanded his farming operations in 2006, with the formation of the Faber Land Partnership, and he paid Barten a wage that year far above the $8,000 limit set by Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 11a. However, the statute looks to the preceding calendar year for purposes of evaluating a farmer’s responsibility for workers’ compensation benefits. Frieler’s farm operations met the statutory requirements for exclusion as a family farm, and application of the exclusion here is not obviously contrary to legislative intent as expressed by the supreme court. We therefore affirm the judge’s decision in its entirety.
 Schoenborn testified that Spring Water Acres is owned by him, individually, and is not a corporation or partnership.
 Frieler’s son owns no farmland but leases some acres.
 However, Frieler is part-owner of one of the Spring Water Acres trucks, he owns another truck, and Frieler Brothers Farms owns tractors.
 Again, however, there is no written agreement spelling out the terms of the partnership.
 Frieler Brothers Farms carried a farm liability policy, but Frieler himself apparently had no insurance for his individual operations. Schoenborn carried workers’ compensation insurance.
 And, of course, the Faber Land Partnership was not created until 2006, meaning that no cash wages were paid by that entity in 2005, either.
 Indeed, in Gorres v. Duncan, No. WC09-5011 (W.C.C.A. Apr. 26, 2010), this court affirmed the compensation judge’s application of the family farm exclusion to a farming operation that had been incorporated.
 Meyering suggests that the statutory purpose is relevant for determining whether it is appropriate to aggregate the wages paid by related farming operations. Other cases have relied on the Meyering discussion of statutory intent for purposes of deciding whether the business at issue even qualified as a farm. See Lentz v. Zerebko, No. WC08-187 (W.C.C.A. Dec. 9, 2008). See also Scanlon v. Caille Farm, Inc., 65 W.C.D. 44 (W.C.C.A. 2004) (it is not only the nature of the tasks performed, but also the purposes for which they are performed, that distinguishes farming from other business entities).
 In his brief, Barten acknowledged repeatedly that Frieler was his employer. However, at the same time, Barten’s arguments about the Faber Land Partnership seem to imply that Barten viewed the partnership, rather than Frieler, as his employer on the date of his injuries. In the end, the distinction is not crucial in this particular case, because both Frieler and the partnership qualify for the family farm exclusion under the terms of the statute and related case law.
 Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 12, specifies that the term “farm laborer” does not apply to an employee of a commercial thresher or baler. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 5,
Subd. 5. Commercial thresher. “Commercial thresher” means a person going from place to place threshing grain or shredding or shelling corn as a business, but does not include a farmer owning a threshing, shredding, or shelling machine not engaged in such business generally and doing the famer’s own threshing, shredding, or shelling and casually doing such work for other farmers in the same community or exchanging work with another farmer.
 In fact, in another section of his brief, Barten himself acknowledged that,
Testimony taken at the trial in this matter evidences that the farming operations owned by Thomas Frieler, James Frieler, Dustin Frieler, James and Thomas Frieler d/b/a Frieler Brothers, and David Schoenborn were all operated independent of each other.