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.

New and Improved NRCS Web Soil Survey

If you need details about the soils on your farm, look no further than the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Web Soil Survey. Using this online tool you can map out the soils on your land and learn important information to ensure crop nutrition, soil fertility and soil and water conservation activities. This tool is especially useful for beginning farmers and new farm occupants so that they can get a better sense of the land that they will farm.

NRCS recently announced the latest version of the web soil survey. The new version includes improved maps, increased Area of Interest acreage, and upgraded options for changing map properties. You can also access the survey online 24 hours a day.

Food hub roundup – a growing solution to direct markets

Direct markets are a growing way for farmers and consumers to interact, but they also support farmers by allowing them to set their own price for products. Even though farmers markets grew by over 250 percent in the past 15 years, many places called “food deserts” in the US still do not have access to fresh, healthy food from local farmers. Direct markets still only account for about .4 percent of all agricultural sales in the country.

Enter food hubs. Food hubs are a new and developing way for farmers to provide products directly to institutions, restaurants, grocers and countless other possibilities.  “Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America’s farmers and ranchers,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers.”

What is a food hub?

There are over 100 food hubs in the country today, each with a slightly different model. What all of these have in common is that each food hub helps farmers tap into new markets they may not have had access to in the past. The USDA created this definition for regional food hubs in the US:

“A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.”

There are three different markets that food hubs can serve: farm-to business, farm-to-consumer or a hybrid model.

A food hub benefits farmers, consumers and the local economy of the community it serves. So, where can farmers and consumers find food hubs? There are currently food hubs all over the country. Some of Farm Aid’s resource partners are making a big impact on direct markets as food hubs that work with small and mid-size farmers.

Red Tomato

Red Tomato is a non-profit organization located in Plainville, Massachusetts. The organization created this video, which asks the important question, “Why is it so difficult to find local produce in your grocery store?”

It is that dilemma that the organization works to solve by providing the logistical support farmers need to provide regional grocers with local produce on a wholesale scale. In doing so, Red Tomato works with farmers across the Northeast in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The organization also provides consulting to farmers looking to transition from direct markets to wholesale markets.

Appalachian Sustainable Development

Appalachian Sustainable Development is a food hub located in Abingdon, Virginia. The organization works with small and mid-size farmers to supply local farm-fresh food to over 600 supermarkets that carry the Appalachian Harvest brand. Through its Healthy Familes – Family Farms program, Appalachian Sustainable Development also provides produce to food banks in the area. The organization works with fruit and vegetable producers in the region to serve Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio.

Ecotrust

Ecotrust works as a food hub across Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. The organization is based in Portland, Oregon.

Ecotrust knows no boundaries, working with a wide array of different buyers including: bakeries, buying clubs, caterers, colleges and universities, food banks, food service contractors, grocers, healthcare facilities, hotels, motels, resorts, B&Bs, packers and processors, personal chefs, restaurants, schools and specialty retailers. The organization goes beyond working with farmers to encompass other producers such as brewers, fishermen and distilleries.

This food hub even provides an online marketplace for producers and consumers similar to a website like Craigslist.com. In doing so, sellers and buyers can interact directly with each other.

For more information on food hubs, check out the Food Hub Resource Guide created by the USDA.

Government shutdown hits America’s farmers

Just as national parks and Veterans face serious setbacks, family farmers too continue to struggle under the weight of the government shutdown in Washington. As the Rural Advancement Foundation International’s Scott Marlow estimates, the delay in budget approval by congress may cost up to 1,400 farmers their farms.

This is a direct result of the sudden lack of funding funneling to farmers, as 1,423 are left waiting for the direct farm operating loans that they were already approved for. What’s more, over 2,000 beginning farmers are waiting for direct farm ownership loans and over 1,000 wait for guaranteed operating loans.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle farmers face in light of the shutdown. Farmers struggle to predict market trends without the agricultural reports typically released weekly by the National Agriculture Statistics Service under the USDA. Many farmers depend on these figures to determine the price of their crops, when to sell commodity crops and cattle auction prices. Not only are they now left without new figures, but also the websites that contained old data are down until the shutdown ends.

The domestic hog market in particular is affected by the shutdown, as traders increasingly back away from the $97 billion market. With no clear end in sight, the lean hogs futures dropped 47 percent immediately following the beginning of the shutdown.

These issues come among a slew of other problems related to food and farming, including the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s inability to monitor foodborne illnesses throughout the remainder of the shutdown. In the span of the shutdown thus far, 278 illnesses from chicken contaminated with Salmonella were reported in 18 different states. Though it is suspected the outbreak comes directly from Foster Farms, the US Department of Agriculture cannot conduct a proper investigation during the Congressional delays.

Congress was warned of the challenges a shutdown would create. Now family farmers are left waiting at a time when some farmers are also facing devastating weather conditions, such as the flooding in Colorado and the deadly blizzard that swept across South Dakota. For now, the only thing for certain is this shutdown will have a lasting impact on America’s family farmers.

USDA Announces Specialty Crop Block Grants

The USDA will provide $52 million in grants supporting specialty crop producers in the U.S. Under the 2013 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, 54 grants will fund 694 initiatives assisting fruit and vegetable producers, as well as markets for other specialty crops.

These grants are intended to help initiatives including creating organic and sustainable practices, pest and disease control, and increasing food safety, among others.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack underscored how investments like these will act to strengthen rural communities by supporting both local markets and public access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Click here for more information about these grants.

USDA Research Grants for Small and Mid-Size Farms – Due September 26

If you have a research project that promotes and improves the sustainability and profitability of a small or midsized farm or ranch, you can apply for funding through the USDA Small Business Innovation Research Program. In your application, make sure to emphasize how the project can benefit rural communities and other farmers, and how the information will be shared among the small farm community. Awards range from $70,000 to $100,000.

Applications are due September 26th, 2013. Click here for full grant details and here to fill out an application. For more information, contact Charles Cleland at ccleland@nifa.usda.gov.

Farming for Beneficial Insects Webinar

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service holds a series of webinars through its Science and Technology Training Library. On July 11, 2013 
2:00 – 3:00 p.m. EST, they will hold a webinar about farming for beneficial insects led by Nancy Lee Adamson, Ph.D., a 
pollinator conservation specialist. The webinar will cover how pollinators and other beneficial insects can help to ensure a healthy harvest and how farmers can support pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests (predators and parasitoids) by providing diverse habitat. New research will also be covered about how habitat adjacent to cropland supports improved pollination and reduces pest pressure. For more information, or to sign up, click here.

How to Sell Fruits and Vegetables to the USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) buys more than $530 million worth of frozen, processed, and fresh fruits and vegetables each year to supply schools, food banks and to distribute during disasters. Learn how to sell your farm’s produce to AMS at a free interactive webinar on Thursday June 27th at 2:00 pm EST. This free webinar is open to fruit and vegetable growers, and processors and distributors of all sizes.
The webinar will discuss how the USDA Commodity Procurement program works and what products the USDA buys; go over requirements for selling to the USDA and how small, socially disadvantaged, women and veteran-owned businesses can get involved; and provide all of the tools and resources necessary to do business with USDA. The webinar will conclude with a Q+A session.

Space is limited. Click here to register.

USDA Announces Rural Business Opportunity Grants

The USDA’s Rural Development Agency is now considering applications for Rural Business Opportunity Grants. While these grants are not for farmers specifically, they can be used for programs that help farmers and encourage business and employment in rural communities. The Rural Development Agency is offering these grants in the hopes they will bring about a resurgence of jobs in rural areas.

The following groups are eligible: public entities, nonprofits, institutions of higher education, Indian tribes on Federal or State reservations, and rural cooperatives.

Up to $2.6 million is available for projects. Before June 30, 2013, $919,820 has been explicitly allocated to American Indian tribes, and $790,303 reserved for Rural Economic Area Projects. After June 30th $790,303 will be available—unreserved—for a variety of projects. The maximum grant award is $100,000.

Applications deadlines are as follows: Paper applications must either be hand delivered to a Rural Development field office, or postmarked by June 28, 2013. USDA must receive electronic applications no later than midnight June 24, 2013. Click here to submit an electronic application.

Visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s website to learn about the 2012 projects that received Rural Business Opportunity Grants.

For more information call the Rural Business-Cooperative Service at the USDA at: 202-720-7558, or click here.

Conservation Stewardship Program passes Congress — Apply Now!

In the first four enrollment years for CSP (2009-2012), more than 39,000 farmers and ranchers operating over 50 million acres of farm and ranch land that is now under five-year, renewable CSP conservation contracts. Annual CSP payments are currently $680 million a year!

The CSP is a working lands conservation program administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and available on a nationwide basis. CSP offers technical and financial assistance to farmers for adopting and maintaining high standards of resource conservation and environmental stewardship.  Assistance is geared to both the active management of existing conservation systems and for implementing new conservation activities on land in agricultural production.  Find the enrollment alert here!

Application forms are available at your local NRCS state offices and farmers should visit their local service center to sign up.  State offices will have information on priority resource concerns for your state and agents available to help farmers.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has created an essential guide to help farmers learn how to apply for the CSP and includes a list of organizations that can assist with the application process.  The Land Stewardship Project has a useful and up-to-date fact sheet.