Md. Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service attempts to settle problems in rural areas

On the Farm

August 12, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

It is part of the American dream -- a home in the country overlooking a landscape of cornfields or pastures with horses or a herd of black-and-white Holsteins.

But the reality of country living kicks in when farmers spread the manure needed to nourish their crops or stir up whirlwinds of dust when plowing their fields.

That's when problems begin. And these problems are just as great for the farmers -- small businesspeople earning a living off the land -- as they are for neighboring homeowners.

When reality sets in

"People move into the country because they want views of the green fields out their windows," said Jane Storrs, director of national marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "But when they get there, the reality is sometimes different than their expectations."

Storrs also heads the Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service that was established to settle disputes in agricultural communities before they end up in court.

The service is designed to help farmers and other rural residents with disputes with family members, neighbors, government agencies and lenders.

"When problems related to agriculture end up in court, no one really wins," said former state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. "The time and costs associated with lawsuits and litigation strain everyone's resources and often result in outcomes that satisfy no one."

Voluntary process

Mediation is a voluntary process in which a neutral third party -- the mediator -- assists farmers, agriculture lenders, agencies, families and residents to resolve disputes in a supportive setting outside the traditional legal and regulatory process.

"And it's confidential," said Storrs. "Nothing goes on the court record, and there are no reporters present.

"It's a cheaper, faster and better way to resolve differences," Storrs said. "Does it mean that the farmer always wins? No. Does it mean that the farmer always loses? No."

Storrs said that about 25 disputes have made it to the mediation service this year.

"Sometimes," she said, "a situation doesn't get that far."

She recalled a conflict between a farmer and his bank that she settled with a phone call to the bank.

Most of the disputes stem from issues involving government regulations and bank loans, she said.

Sometimes they are family issues, such as finding a way to have all five kids share equally in the inheritance of a farm without selling the property.

Issues with neighbors

The second-largest category of disputes is those between farmers and their neighbors and usually involves smells, dust and noise.

"Sometimes these are settled simply by the farmer giving his neighbor a call and saying, `I'm going to be spreading manure Saturday,' " Storrs said. "The neighbor might say, `I'm having my daughter's graduation party on Saturday. Can you do it Sunday?' "

She said that about 90 percent of the disputes going to mediation are settled without going to court. A department survey of people involved in the service reported that 95 percent were satisfied with the process.

Storrs said the birth of the agriculture mediation service dates to the farm credit crisis of the mid-1980s when lenders foreclosed on farm loans.

It started in the Midwest -- Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska -- and spread to other parts of the country.

She said 33 states now have some form of farm mediation service.

The General Assembly gave Maryland's farm mediation program a big vote of confidence last year. Lawmakers passed legislation requiring that any nuisance suit against farmers go to a mediation service before making it to court.

The Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service is staffed by 30 part-time mediators, trained to handle the kinds of disputes that arise on farms.

Storrs said the group is made up of lawyers, university extension agents, professional mediators and retired business owners. One member, she said, is a teacher.

The service is a partnership between the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds about 70 percent of the cost of the service.

Mediators are paid $75 an hour only when working. There is no charge to parties involved in a dispute during the first two mediation sessions.

"It usually only takes one session to settle things," said Storrs.

"It's a wonderful program," said Kenneth Bounds, a vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, the state's largest farm lender. "It's a good way to settle reasonable conflicts in everyone's best interest."

But, he added: "It's not good for the trial lawyers. They make their money when disputes go to court."

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