Maryland creating farm-dispute mediation program

Goal is less farmer, neighbor litigation

July 11, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

As more city folks move to Maryland's countryside to build their dream homes on spacious lots next to picturesque farms, there are bound to be conflicts.

With this in mind, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) is establishing a statewide, voluntary mediation service to resolve agriculture-related disputes through negotiation, rather than expensive, and often lengthy, litigation.

"We hope to have the program fully operational by late September," Jane Storrs, an international marketing specialist with the MDA, said yesterday.

Storrs, who has been picked to head the service, has a master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University.

"Maryland has a very progressive Agriculture Department," said Chester A. Bailey, who heads the national states mediation program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "And it needs to be in dealing with the kinds of rural development and housing issues it faces now and will be facing in the future."

Bailey said 25 states have mediation programs, but Maryland will be only the second to do so on the East Coast, after Florida. New Jersey is also in the process of establishing a program, he said.

"The typical dispute is related to credit," Bailey said, "but in Maryland and New Jersey my guess is that most disputes will be between rural and urban citizens."

Bailey said he expects a lot of the disputes in Maryland to be centered around odor problems of farms, the spraying of pesticides, the handling of manure and disagreements between the large chicken processors and their contract chicken growers.

Bradley H. Powers, assistant secretary of MDA, said the program, called Farm Sense, will handle issues between farmers and other farmers, neighbors, creditors, and state and federal regulatory agencies.

"By sitting down together and having open, honest and confidential discussions, it is often possible to reach agreements without costly litigation and court actions," Powers said.

Participants in a mediation program still have the right, if appropriate, to a regulatory appeal or to take court action, Storrs said.

She said the state is building a roster of 15 to 20 mediators who will be scattered throughout the state. The positions will be part-time and not necessarily filled by lawyers. "In some cases, the best mediators are not lawyers," she said.

The department is seeking people who are creative, able to see various ways of solving a problem and who believe that those best at resolving a dispute are the ones involved in it.

The mediation service is operated and funded by the state and the USDA. The USDA covers 95 percent of the cost, Storrs said. The person requesting the mediation service is charged $50 for the first session. If the dispute needs more time, the department negotiates a fee to be paid by the parties involved.

Storrs said the program could save thousands of dollars in a regulatory appeal case.

"In some cases, it could save the farm," she said. "If there is a credit problem, the farmer and creditor can get together and figure out a way to refinance a loan so that the farmer can afford to make the payment and not lose the farm."

Congress created the program in 1987 to handle the national farming financial crisis and the high number of farm foreclosures, Bailey said. In 1993, it was expanded to handle a wide variety of other farm-related issues.

Nationwide, 70 percent to 75 percent of all mediated disputes are settled without costly litigation or going to court, he said.

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