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.

Season extension resource roundup

Winter is just around the corner, but just because the season is ending doesn’t mean the growing season needs to go with it. Luckily, there are season extension techniques that farmers and gardeners can implement in order to stretch a crop’s natural outdoor growing season or store crops through the winter.

There are plenty of easy, inexpensive practices available to farmers and gardeners for season extension. Many organizations put together tips on how to extend the growing season well beyond its natural time:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) provides an extensive look at season extension. The resource includes information on everything from irrigation to transplants to plasticulture to heat as it applies to soil and moisture. The guide offers preparation and logistical information for various practices right for farmers or gardeners at any level, whether that is mulches or high tunnels or anything in-between. The resource also contains input on how to calculate the economics behind different practices and implementation.

The North Carolina State University organized basic concepts to remember in order to effectively extend a crop’s growing season. Most importantly, NC Cooperative Extension explains that growers must understand the principles behind heat and cold, as well as its impact on plants. Among other ideas, the university’s guide points out the ground retains heat that protects plants in cold temperatures, but wet ground preserves more heat than wet ground. The guide also addresses: temperature thresholds for different crops, different cultural practices for season extension and information on fabrics and structures commonly used.

University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension provides a look at various inexpensive methods of season extension. The guide provides insight into low tunnels and winter storage for post-harvest storage methods. Through video demonstrations, the UMass Extension site also displays various how-tos on building and maintaining a hoophouse.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) put together an overview of information involving season extension, with particular focus on high tunnels, greenhouses and nurseries. SARE provides an outline of different topics with access to case studies, course information, fact sheets, multimedia packets and links to other organization’s websites. The guide delves into basic winter storage units, as well as information on marketing products and the economics behind season extension. The SARE website explains the basic fertility, pest and water management during cold months.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) provides individual results from farmers that conducted research on various topics surrounding winter growing and storage. Five farmers researched methods of winter storage delving into the following issues: broccoli under row covers, watering impacts on soil temperature, bed pitch impact on soil temperatures, row cover comparisons and row cover heights. Three farmers looked into differing issues with winter storage techniques: winter carrot storage to maintain quality and minimize staining, carrot storage systems and post-harvest winter squash treatments.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension organized a guide for farmers in Maine climate areas. The site is dedicated to educating farmers on how to make appropriate decisions for a particular farm situation. The resource explicates different techniques separated by no or low-cost practices and those that require investment. The site provides cost estimates for the techniques and offers links to resources on specified topics from other outlets.

In the same realm, Maine Rural Partners has a season extension program in place that focuses on food and energy. The program focuses on assisting women, elder and limited resource farmers in overcoming a multitude of common challenges: high energy costs, low daylight, market uncertainty, low volume compared to input costs, financing and institutional purchasing challenges.

The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension provides a short, but comprehensive overview of various tools to implement for effective season extension including: cold frames, garden fabrics, high tunnels, Walls O’ Water, hot caps and greenhouse umbrellas. The site explains how to use these techniques leading up to and proceeding frost dates.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service often provides hightunnel cost-share support for limited resource farmers.

Just because winter is coming doesn’t mean it’s the end for fruit and veggies. It is important to recognize that different season extension techniques are suited for different types of farms and climates. There are many inexpensive, basic methods of season extension, such as winter storage, that any farmer can easily implement into his farming or gardening.