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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louisiana State Agricultural 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.
• 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.