Mediating conflict on the farm before it goes to court

ON THE FARM

August 10, 2008|By TED SHELSBY

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.

It's nice to look out the kitchen window and take in a view of dairy cows grazing on rolling fields of grass, but it's not so much fun for newcomers to the rural countryside when the smell of manure floats through the air.

Relations between farmers and their neighbors can also be strained when farmers spray their fields with pesticides or plow their fields in the early morning.

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

After nine years of operation, the department has revamped its program and changed the name from Farm Sense to the Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service (Maryland ACReS).

The goal, however, remains the same. The service seeks to resolve disputes before they end up in court.

"The biggest change" in the program, said Eddie Johnson, mediation coordinator, "is the approach we take to resolving differences.

"I'm a farmer," he said. "I'm a former county agent [with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension]. "I'm looking at disputes from a different perspective. I look at them from the perspective of a retired dairy farmer."

In the past, he said, the head of the mediation service was a person with a background as a mediator.

Johnson took over the mediation service in May after leaving his job as the extension agent in Wicomico County.

The state Agriculture Department promotes the program as a quick, confidential, no- or low-cost service available to all Marylanders to help resolve disputes before they end up in court.

Legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2006 requires anyone wishing to bring legal action against an agricultural operation in any court to first go through a mediation service.

"There are no winners in agriculture when a disagreement goes to court," said Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson. "The time and cost associated with lawsuits and litigation strain everyone's resources and often result in outcomes that satisfy no one."

Richardson continued: "We hope farm operators and their nonfarm/off-farm neighbors will try our mediation service before a situation becomes unbearable or goes to court."

Under the mediation process, a neutral third party (the mediator) assists farmers, agricultural lenders, agencies, families and residents to resolve disputes in a nonadversarial setting outside the traditional legal and regulatory process.

Mediation is based on the voluntary cooperation and participation of all the involved parties. Working through the process, there is no finding of right or wrong, and the mediator has no power to impose a solution.

There is no charge for the initial consultation with program staff and the first mediation session. If additional mediation sessions are needed, costs are shared by the parties, with full or partial waivers of fees based on income.

Johnson said that most farmers are aware of the program, but fewer members of business or legal groups know of the service.

"We need to get the word out," he said. "In coming weeks, I will be meeting with judges. The judges don't know about it.

"I will be meeting with the Maryland Farm Bureau, the Maryland Bar Association, the Realtors' association and the association of counties."

For information, contact Johnson at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, 410-841-5778, or johnsone@mda.state.md.us.

Matching grants

Ed Schafer, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has announced the awarding of matching grants totaling more than $1.3 million to support agricultural market research in 24 states, including Maryland and Delaware.

The funds are to be used to conduct the second phase of a project to facilitate use of locally produced foods in Maryland hospitals.

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