Discovering the Agriculture Mediation Program

For most farmers, a dispute with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is an intimidating prospect. After all, the USDA is a large federal government agency, and some farmers can’t afford even basic legal services.

Enter the Agriculture Credit Act of 1987, which helped create Agriculture Mediation Programs in various states. Mediation is a free or low-cost alternative to legal action. While disputes can take years to resolve through legal action, mediation typically can be completed in a few sessions lasting hours. Thirty-eight states currently offer this type of program, and a federal mediation service is available to farmers located elsewhere.

How does a state obtain a certified USDA Agriculture Mediation Program?

Any state can apply to have a USDA certified Agriculture Mediation Program. An entity must first apply through the USDA in Washington, DC. This entity can be a university, a state department, a nonprofit or a company, but each faces a different set of conditions for compliance with the Code of Federal Regulations. The application process is extensive and requires a letter of recommendation from the state’s governor or the head of another appointed agency. If a state would like to apply, the governor or designated state agency official must notify a Farm Service Agency administrator on August 1.

If an applying institution passes the initial screening, its employees go through training and education administered by the federal Agriculture Mediation Program under the USDA. Once the training is complete and the institution has been approved to become an official USDA-recognized Agriculture Mediation Program, it must submit annual reporting to the USDA.

A certified Agriculture Mediation Program receives grant funding from the USDA equaling up to 70 percent of the program’s budget for covered cases. Coverage extends to cases involving agricultural loans, agricultural credit and adverse decisions by a USDA agency.

How can mediation help?

When someone faces an adverse USDA decision, that person may be offered mediation as an option under the Department’s informal appeals process. An individual can also contact a mediation program directly if he or she thinks it is a viable option. Mediation is entirely confidential, and no documents created during the process can be used in any legal action that might follow. Both parties are prepared by the mediator in advance of the mediation session. This may include financial counseling, acquiring proper documentation or any other preparations necessary for a specific case. The mediator acts as an entirely impartial third party, and either party can request a different mediator at any stage in the process. Some states also offer mediation to resolve issues outside of the USDA’s domain, such as disputes involving contracts with food processors or conflicts with neighbors, although 60 percent of mediation cases deal with farm loan programs.

Once both parties agree to mediation, a time and meeting location is determined. Depending on the issue, mediation can sometimes be completed over the phone. Whether mediation takes place by phone or in person, both parties and the trained mediator are present. Gayle Cooper, associate director of the Fulcrum Institute Dispute Resolution Clinic with locations in Idaho, Montana and Washington, estimates that the entire mediation process averages about three hours, depending on the complexity of the issue. While many states, including Idaho, Montana and Washington, offer these services for free, other states charge a small fee. Iowa, for example, charges $50 per hour. In many cases, that’s a more affordable option than paying for an attorney, who can charge anywhere from $100 to $1,000 per hour while pursuing legal action that might take months or years to resolve.

It’s important to note that mediation is very different from legal action in that the mediator has no decision-making power. He or she is simply the facilitator. If the two parties are able to come to an agreement, the mediator will create a binding document for both parties to sign.

USDA disputes:

The Agriculture Mediation Program was originally intended to help farmers respond to adverse USDA decisions without pursuing a legal course of action. Each state with an Agriculture Mediation Program covers cases involving the following eight USDA agencies or programs:

(1)  Farm Service Agency farm programs

(2)  Rural Development housing loans

(3)  Rural Development business loans

(4)  Rural Development water loans

(5)  Natural Resources Conservation Service wetland determinations

(6)  USDA decisions involving pesticides

(7)  National Forest Service grazing permits

(8)  Risk Management Agency crop insurance disputes

Agriculture Mediation Programs are also required to cover issues with agricultural credit and agricultural loans from the Farm Service Agency, as well as from commercial and private lenders.

Other disputes:

Not all states provide mediation services for disputes that do not involve the USDA. States that do offer this option cannot receive federal funding to do so. Each state that does offer non-USDA mediation has different provisions for the types of conflicts it can address. Elaine Bourne, program manager for Community Mediation Services in Maine, shares some examples of common disputes that Maine’s program can help with: farm and rural development loans, environmental or forestry issues, crop insurance or disaster relief, contracts with food processors, conflicts with neighbors, labor issues, farm business plans, wetland determinations, farm succession or estate issues and disputes affecting agricultural operations.

What states offer these services?

Below is a list of states that offer certified Agriculture Mediation Programs, with links to each website where applicable. Don’t see your state below? You can contact the national office by emailing certified.mediationprogram@wdc.usda.gov.

Alabama Agricultural Mediation Program

Arkansas Farm/Creditor Mediation Program

Arizona Agriculture Mediation Institute

Colorado Agricultural Mediation Program

Florida Agricultural Mediation Service

Hawaii Agricultural Mediation Program

Illinois Agricultural Mediation Program

Indiana Agricultural Mediation Program

Iowa Mediation Service (IMS)

Kansas Ag Mediation Services (KAMS)

Louisiana State Agricultural Mediation Program

Maine Agricultural Mediation Program – Volunteers of America

Massachusetts Agricultural Mediation Program

Michigan Agricultural Mediation Program

Minnesota Farmer/Lender Mediation Program

Mississippi Agricultural Mediation Program

Missouri Agricultural Mediation Services

Nebraska Farm Mediation Service

New Hampshire Agricultural Mediation Program

New Mexico Agricultural Mediation Program

New York State Agricultural Mediation Program

North Carolina Agricultural Mediation Program

North Dakota Mediation Service

Oklahoma Agriculture Mediation Program, Inc.

Oregon Farm Mediation Program

South Dakota Mediation and Ag Finance Counseling

State of New Jersey Board of Mediation

Texas Rural Mediation Services

The Community Mediation Center of Rhode Island

Utah Agricultural Mediation Program

Vermont Agricultural Mediation Program

Virginia Agricultural Mediation Program

Wisconsin Farm Mediation and Arbitration Program

Wyoming Ag & Natural Resource Mediation Program

Fulcrum Institute Dispute Resolution Clinic (ID, MT, WA)

Where can I find more information about mediation?

There are many resources available that offer a more in-depth look into how mediation can help, as well as advice on how to contact a local mediation provider.

• The USDA shares this overview of the Agriculture Mediation Program and provides contact information for each state entity.

• Mediate.com walks you through the history of mediation, what it is and how it can help.

• Farm Aid’s Farmer Resource Network includes information about each state’s mediation program and contact information.

Crowdfunding: What is it and how can it help?

What is crowd-sourced funding?

Crowd-sourced funding, or crowdfunding, is a new way for individuals or organizations to raise money online. There are different websites that offer crowdfunding services, each of which typically request a percentage of the money raised. Here’s how it works: someone posts a campaign to the website and individuals that support it can donate funds directly. Usually, the users need to give benchmark rewards to those that donated based on the donation amount. The concept has taken the Internet by storm in recent years as new websites and campaigns continue to grow.

While the Internet and agriculture may seem worlds apart, there are many farmers and agricultural innovators that have successfully raised tens, hundreds, even thousands of dollars through these crowdfunding sites. Take, for example, the Mano Farm in Ojai, California. The farmers posted their campaign to Kickstarter in an attempt to raise money to offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares to low-income families. 46 individuals donated to the cause to help the farmers raise $10,000 for their campaign. Other farmers have been successful in raising money to build new infrastructure, develop new innovative tools, implement more sustainable practices and even save a farm from foreclosure.

Platforms:

Kickstarter

Kickstarter is one of the most well known crowd-sourced funding platforms today. Individuals post their campaigns through an optional video submission, pictures and a written story detailing their cause. The project requires a set timeline and funding goal. If the goal is not reached, the individual is not permitted to keep any of the money raised. If the goal is surpassed in the given amount of time, the individual is able to keep the extra funds to put toward the cause. Just in 2013 over $480 million was pledged toward campaigns on the site.

Farm Aid’s sister website, HOMEGROWN.org, is a curator on Kickstarter. As a curator, campaigns working to make innovative or sustainable strides in food or farming are carefully chosen and added to the HOMEGROWN Kickstarter page.

Indie GoGo

Indie GoGo is another popular crowdfunding site very similar to Kickstarter. It is different in that even if someone does not meet his or her goal, that individual is still able to keep all of the funds raised. It is free to sign up and create a campaign on Indie GoGo, but the percentage that the site keeps is dependent upon whether or not the initial goal is reached. There are no guidelines as to what a person’s campaign can be for, so anyone can raise money for their cause.

GoFundMe

GoFundMe is another crowdfunding site that allows a user to create a campaign for virtually any cause, even medical bills or livestock expenses. The site helps a user promote the campaign through social media channels like Facebook and Twitter for more widespread exposure. Like IndieGoGo, users can keep all of the donations even if the goal is not met. A percentage of the funds raised is automatically deducted from the donations, but the percentage remains the same even if the user does not meet the initial campaign goal.

RocketHub

RocketHub is another very similar model in that users can create campaigns surrounding nearly any project topic. Users are able to keep the funds they raise even if it does not meet a goal. The site is partnered by A&E, creating unique media exposure opportunities for users. Depending on the project, there is even the opportunity for A&E to fund campaigns.

From farm to fork: the journey of food

Farm to fork—it sounds intuitive enough, right? Farmers produce the food, which is then brought directly to consumers to eat. It’s simple. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way the majority of America’s food system works today. With a rise in agricultural conglomerates, the journey of food from the farm to consumer’s plates is anything but simple.

Take produce, for example. Once the product is picked fresh from the fields, it is often sent on a truck to a packing plant where it can be cleaned and packaged. From there it’s sent to the distributor before eventually reaching local stores. Each of these outlets may be hundreds, even thousands of miles apart, if the stops are in the country at all. About 70 percent of the food Americans consume must go through chilled transportation and storage to stay preserved throughout this process.

So exactly how long is food’s journey before it reaches the shelves of local grocery stores? On average, processed food travels 1,300 miles before it reaches consumers. Produce has an even longer trek with an average travel distance of 1,500 miles before reaching consumers. All food spends an average of 14 days on a truck before hitting local stores. Food transportation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Fear not—fresh and local food is making a comeback. Eating locally is beneficial in more ways than one. Farmers usually receive a higher profit margin for their produce and consumers have the opportunity to interact directly with the person that produced their farm-fresh food. While food transportation takes a hard toll on the environment, eating locally eliminates the middlemen and associated travel. Whether it is through farmers markets, CSAs or farm to school, organizations across the country are making strides to build creative solutions to bridge the gap from farm to fork.

California Farm to Fork

California is at the forefront of the local foods movement. The California Department of Food and Agriculture initially funded this project in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health and the California Department of Education. California Farm to Fork assists farmers in directly reaching consumers, restaurants, schools and more. The project helps to coordinate workshops focused around local foods and provides resources to increase people’s access to healthy and fresh food from around the state.

Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)

From 2008 to 2009, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) worked to create a strategy to develop a sustainable local food system in North Carolina. The average person spends about $4,010 on food consumption every year. The folks at the CEFS discovered that if everyone in North Carolina spent 5 percent of that amount on local food, it would contribute over $1.7 billion annually to the local state economy. CEFS put together a farm to fork state action guide to work dynamically towards fostering a locally minded food and farming system in the state. CEFS will host its annual Farm to Fork Picnic on June 8.

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)

The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project works to connect farmers in the Southern Appalachian region to local markets through training and support. The organization works primarily in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia but offers guidance on a national level through its annual Local Food Guide. Working with more than just farmers to spearhead the movement in the region, ASAP helps restaurants and foodservice buyers to find fresh, certified locally grown foods.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

For more than 20 years the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture has worked in Massachusetts toward expanding markets for locally produced food. CISA formed diverse “buy local” programs to assist with all facets of local direct marketing, including providing shares of local produce to low-income seniors, supporting farm to institution programs, consulting farmers and farm service providers and offering technical assistance to farm operations.

Where to Find out More:

Recent Resource Spotlights highlighted direct marketing opportunities for farmers through food hubs and farm to institution models.

To find out where you can buy local food in your area, check out the Find Good Food page on the Farm Aid website.

Farm Aid is a sponsor of the 7th annual Farm to Cafeteria conference in Austin, Texas from April 15th through the 18th. The conference will bring together more than 1,000 food service professionals, farmers, educators, advocates, policy makers and more to work on sourcing local food to institutional cafeterias across the country. Click here for more info and to register for the conference.

 

MOSES 25th annual farming conference

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) will host its 25th annual conference from February 27 through March 1. The MOSES farming conference is the largest US event focused on organic and sustainable agriculture with over 3,000 farmers in attendance each year. This networking and educational event features 65 workshops, 170 exhibitors and keynote speakers.

This 25th anniversary event will be held at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. You must register by February 14th to attend the farming conference.

Email questions to info@mosesorganic.org. Click here to register for the event and for more information: http://mosesorganic.org/conference/