CONCORD, N.H. — Passage of the 2018 Farm Bill significantly expands the thirty-year-old program that helps farmers resolve disputes outside of a courtroom.
The Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 authorized the US Department of Agriculture to support development of state mediation programs to help producers and lenders resolve farm loan issues. Congress expanded the program in 1994 to include credit issues and compliance with USDA conservation issues. Over the decades, the number of participating states has steadily grown: forty-one states now have certified programs. Since then, however, the types of “covered cases” has remained static, even as shifts in agriculture produced new challenges for farmers.
“These amendments will help meet a growing demand for our services,” says Matt Strassberg, Director of the Vermont and New Hampshire Agricultural Mediation Program (VTAMP and NHAMP). Strassberg explains that the collective experience of the different ag mediation programs was the basis for the changes. “It’s often a huge step for a farmer to ask for help,” he says. “We kept getting asked to do mediations on lease issues or neighbor conflicts, but would have to turn them down or charge a fee. With these changes, we have already seen a significant increase in the number of farmers we’re able to help for free.”
- Leases are covered. Unlike the days when farming was synonymous with fee simple tenure, many farmers now grow crops on land they don’t own. Farmers also may lease rather than purchase large pieces of equipment. With the update to the Farm Bill, mediators can now work with the farmer and landowner or equipment dealer at no cost to the participants.
- Family transitions qualify for help. As the average age of farmers continues to creep up in the U.S., transitioning to the next generation can pose challenges. Trained mediators can help family members address unspoken conflicts to plan for the future.
- Farmer-neighbor disagreements get a helping hand. Farming can be noisy, smelly, and dusty. Conflicts with neighbors can create long-term stress. Neutral mediators can help break the impasse and focus discussions on solutions that will work for everyone.
- Credit counseling services are an option. Mediators often work with farmers to ensure that proposed solutions are financially feasible, but the amended language will allow more direct assistance where appropriate.
- Organic certification. Mediation was already an option for addressing issues related to the USDA organic certification program, but those services can now be provided at no cost to the producer.
- State flexibility. Recognizing that the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t match the diverse nature of agriculture in the US, the Secretary or head of each state’s department of agriculture can designate additional issues that may be covered under its certified program. This flexible approach will allow states to tailor their mediation programs to meet the needs of their agricultural communities.
Since 2007, farmers have turned to the VTAMP and NHAMP to help craft solutions to disputes with lenders, creditors, and USDA. Managed by the non-profit Environmental Mediation Center, VTAMP and NHAMP are the state-certified ag mediation programs. The agricultural mediation programs receive federal funding that enables them to provide mediation services free of charge to farmers, lenders, and creditors on covered cases.
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–Environmental Mediation Center/Ag Mediation
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