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Chester , Washington DC   12/06/06
Texas Rural Mediation Services
Updated December 5, 2006 8:54 AM USDA offers dispute resolution By BEVERLY MOSELEY Land & Livestock Post http://www.landandlivestockpost.com/stories/120506/news_20061205005.php Many Texans continue to face environmental and financial consequences of long-term drought and fire conditions on their farms and ranches. Mother Nature has created circumstances where once manageable agriculture debt has grown into a formidable obstacle. For some, the consequences are the inability to repay U.S. Department of Agriculture loans. Texas Rural Mediation Services can assist these producers in resolving disputes and opening the lines of communications with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There is talk that the drought is going to impact a number of loans in the future," said Gene Valentini, director of the Texas Rural Mediation Services program, which is part of the Dispute Resolution Center based in Lubbock. More than 30 states offer this USDA mediation program. Its purpose is to assist ag producers, creditors and USDA agencies with issues such as loan problems, adverse decisions and disputes. "Texas Rural Mediation Services is a program that provides services to a client that has had an adverse decision from the USDA," said Amanda McDermand, outreach public relations coordinator for the program. In 2000, the Dispute Resolution Center was designated by then-Gov. George W. Bush as the provider for Texans of the USDA's certified state agricultural mediation program. "We're the impartial third party," said Valentini. The role of the mediator or negotiator is to facilitate an agreement or compromise between a client and the government. "Because of the Governor's declaration, we can go to any county in the state," Valentini said. "Any place there is a USDA connnection." For example, mediators traveled to East Texas to help deal with problem solving after Hurricane Rita. "Last year in disasters, the ranchers really got burned - literally," Valentini said. Valentini said there are about 75 trained and impartial mediators in the South Plains region and about 13 more across the state. The hourly fee is $50 and payment is divided among all parties involved. "Texas is very unique. It has a core of negotiators that work on behalf of USDA, but also are checking on what USDA has done," Valentini said. Valentini had one case where the USDA was in the right on a loan that came due and a farm had to be sold. But in another case, during the process of mediation it was found that the USDA made an error. The agency apologized, corrected it and moved on, he added. The mediator or negotiator is there as an advocate for the agency, but still might have to challenge the USDA or client about thought processes and facts involved in the dispute. Disputes can range from water conservation, the USDA's Risk Management Agency, Farm Service Agency or Natural Resources Conservation Service. "Our approach on this is that the USDA basically can fund almost any kind of activity in rural Texas," Valentini said. "You can almost use your imagination to what can be done and not done." Valentini said within the past year he served as a mediator on a case that began as a shared property line dispute between two landowners. A sheriff asked him to assist when the two men started using their tractors to threaten each other physically. Valentini was called in when it was found out both men were receiving Farm Service Agency loans. "The problem wasn't a fenceline and boundary line," Valentini said. "It was a Hatfield and McCoy kind of thing. We worked for about four hours on how to civilly communicate with each other." Valentini said people have nothing to lose by using mediation. He said the program is affordable, confidential within limits and neutral. "I think anything is mediatable. If you've got a rancher that's 65 and his wife is 64 and they're having sibling disputes and having to decide what to do with the farm - why wait till it happens? Let's start talking about it now," Valentini said. "We've had cases with USDA where the dad dies, mom has the farm and the kids don't want it. It can get complicated." Mediation can provide hope to some producers who have run into trouble with the USDA, said Linda Shoemaker, a mediator for Texas Rural Mediation Services. "Occasionally, we actually find where a mistake has been made by the USDA," she said. She recommended that clients come to the meeting prepared and organized with any extenuating facts that would argue against the adverse decision. A client can bring whoever he or she wants to assist them. Shoemaker said one responsibility of the mediator is to make sure the balance of power isn't on the government's side. Generally, the client will start with his or her story. "That's really important that they get a chance to tell their story in a friendly environment," Shoemaker said. "Then we let the USDA person give the government's side of the case." Both Valentini and Shoemaker said a mediation session generally runs two to four hours. Shoemaker explained that a producer doesn't lose any rights by using mediation. When an adverse decision letter is received from the USDA, a producer normally has 30 days to appeal. She said the appeal is frozen, or time stops, the day mediation is applied for. The clock starts running again once the USDA says through the mediation process that no error has been made. The producer then has the option of appealing to the national appeals division. "Mediation can help the producer identify the strong parts of his case if it goes to [national] appeal," Shoemaker said. • E-mail Beverly Moseley at beverly.moseley@theeagle.com.

Chester , Washington DC   11/01/06
Agriculture Mediation Success
Oklahoma Agriculture Mediation Program update from the Oklahoma Farmer's Union. “OAMP’s past 87 percent success rate in helping our farmers and ranchers settle disputes out of court has been phenomenal,” said Terry Detrick, vice president of Oklahoma Farmer’s Union and OAMP Advisory Council chair. “We commend our state USDA-appointed officials for recognizing the value of this program to agriculture producers and supporting its continuation." Oklahoma Agriculture Mediation Program recertified by USDA Thursday, 26 October 2006 http://www2.dasnr.okstate.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=363 STILLWATER, Okla. – Oklahoma State University has announced that the Oklahoma Agriculture Mediation Program (OAMP) has been recertified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the federal fiscal year 2007. OAMP helps agricultural producers, their lenders and other persons directly affected by the actions of USDA resolve disputes within regulatory requirements. “Mediation sessions are confidential,” said Andrea Braeutigam, OAMP manager. “Mediation is available for agriculture loans, compliance with farm programs, conservation programs, rural housing and rural business adverse determination issues. OAMP also can assist rural Oklahomans with resolving a wide variety of issues that affect their daily lives.” Braeutigam said the program provides distressed producers a way to resolve conflicts with USDA within their financial means. The program first received certification from USDA in 1988 and has been recertified each year since. “OAMP’s past 87 percent success rate in helping our farmers and ranchers settle disputes out of court has been phenomenal,” said Terry Detrick, vice president of Oklahoma Farmer’s Union and OAMP Advisory Council chair. “We commend our state USDA-appointed officials for recognizing the value of this program to agriculture producers and supporting its continuation." The program has undergone changes this past fiscal year and is now under the direction of Braeutigam and Linda Jaco, interim associate director of sponsored programs for the Seretean Wellness Center at OSU. Additional information about OAMP assistance and services is available by contacting the Institute for Dispute Resolution at 1-800-248-5465 or oamp@okstate.edu on the Internet.

Chester Bailey, Washington DC  chester.bailey@wdc.usda.gov     06/21/06
USDA Agricultural Mediation
Texas Mediator Now Warming the Bench Lubbock, Texas - June 16, 2006 Earlier this week, Mediator Bill Smith removed his intermediary’s hat and donned a robe as he was sworn in as the 110th District Judge for the State of Texas. The Honorable William P. Smith had been mediating for the current USDA State Certified Mediation Program in Texas since its beginning in March of 2000. The 110th Judicial District includes four rural Texas Counties, and Judge Smith intends to encourage the use of ADR in this District whenever possible. “Encourage it? No. I plan to require it,” states Smith. “A lot of cases can settle, but the parties have led their attorneys to believe they are too far apart. They won’t ask for mediation, but when there is an order from the Court, and folks have to give it a try, they realize there really is room to work. Mediation saves millions of dollars in litigation costs, not to mention the time it saves....” Judge Smith also values the experience he gained as a mediator for the Texas Program. “Mediation has given me the tools and skills necessary to be an effective Judge.” Judge Smith recalls a recent mediation referred by a rural Texas Sheriff’s Office in an alleged Criminal Mischief case. The underlying dispute seemed to be property damage, so a determination was made that mediation might allow the parties to resolve the issue without further Law Enforcement involvement. A discovery that the property at issue was USDA collateral allowed the case to be mediated by Texas Rural Mediation Services. “It turned out, the property damage was tied to one of the guys pushing a truck out of his way with his farm equipment. This was a Hatfield and McCoy situation - these families had been battling it out for years. The settlement agreement included options for avoiding future property damage situations, but the most memorable part was that it included an apology. That case had no business going before a Judge - mediation was perfect for these guys.” D. Gene Valentini, Director of the Dispute Resolution Department of Lubbock County, appreciates Smith’s involvement in the Program and was present at his swearing-in ceremony. “Of course we are proud of him - he’s one of ours!” ************

Chester    09/15/05
USDA Agricultural Mediation Program
United States Senator Pat Roberts, of Kansas, introduced bill S.643 on March 16, 2005, to extend State mediation programs through 2010. S.643 was passed by unanimous consent on April 21, 2005. The House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 371 Ayes and 2 Nays on June 13, 2005. The President signed the bill into law on June 29, 2005, as Public Law No: 109-17.

Chester Bailey  cbailey@wdc.fsa.usda.gov     06/23/05
USDA Agricultural Mediation Program
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - June 16, 2005 CONTACT: Sarah Ross Little(202) 224-4774 Senator Roberts’ Ag Mediation Bill to be Signed Into Law; Continues Vital Programs WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Pat Roberts today announced that legislation he authored to continue critical agriculture mediation programs passed the House on Tuesday and now heads to the president’s desk to be signed into law. “The mediation programs at the Department of Agriculture go a long way in helping our farmers and ranchers seek confidential advice and counsel to address loan problems and disputes before they grow to be too much for the producer too handle,” Senator Roberts said. The legislation will continue to authorize funding of the Certified State Agriculture Mediation Program for five years. Mediation provides a neutral, confidential forum to discuss complex issues and build strong working relationships with producers, their lenders and government agencies. The programs address issues in a confidential and non-adversarial setting outside the traditional legal process of foreclosure, bankruptcy, appeals and litigation. Since the program was reauthorized in 2000, seven more states have implemented a USDA Certified State Agricultural Mediation Program, bringing the total to 32 states, a growth of nearly 30 percent. The number of mediation clients nationwide has increased from approximately 3,300 in Fiscal Year 2001 to more than 4,600 in Fiscal Year 2004. Senator Roberts is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Chester , Washington DC   09/22/04
USDA Certified State Mediation Program-followup
USDA’s Certified State Agricultural Mediation Program, administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the United States Department of Agriculture, was recently re-authorized through fiscal year 2005. Each year, Congress provides funding for the program, appropriating $3.97 million for fiscal year 2003. Congress appropriated $3.95 million for this fiscal year. The mediation program developed out of the farm financial crisis of the 1980's when highly leveraged and younger farmers were early victims of this traumatic period. The Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), now merged with the USDA FSA, portfolio of about $26 billion represented about 15 percent of the United States farm debt. The number of FmHA farm borrowers had declined from about 270,000 in 1986 to 242,000 in 1988. At the end of January 1988, about 85,000 borrowers were delinquent, and another 33,000 were in bankruptcy, foreclosure, or some other related inactive status. The loan portfolio of delinquent borrowers totaled over $11.4 billion, with about $9.6 billion in overdue payments of principal and interest. The farm credit crisis provided fertile soil for innovation in the mediation field. In 1985 the State of Iowa and Minnesota launched farmer-creditor mediation programs to keep their farmers and lenders from being plowed under in bankruptcy and foreclosure actions. During the fall of 1986, Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming started their mediation programs. While progress was being made at the state level, the FmHA had hardened its position on not participating in state mediation programs. FmHA officials ruled that state governments could not mandate participation by a federal agency in mediation and county FmHA officials could not attend any mediation sessions under a mandatory program or a voluntary program. The FmHA decision was based on the historic eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Coleman vs. Block in which the court ruled that FmHA could not foreclosure on a loan because it had not adequately notified the borrowers of their rights. The ruling prevented the USDA and FmHA from foreclosing on loans and by extension, from participating in any process that could lead to foreclosure. Many settlements that for one reason or another depended on FmHA's participation were frustrated, consequently farmers began filing for bankruptcy because then FmHA would be forced to participate in bankruptcy proceedings. The solution to this problem as well as to other problems was clear to farm advocates for the need of national legislation including a provision defining the rights of borrowers. As part of those rights, was the borrowers right to mediation, and with it the passage of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 (ACT), farm-creditor mediation was institutionalized at the federal level. The Act authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to help states develop USDA certified state agricultural loan mediation programs. This Act authorized an appropriation of $7,500,000 for each of the fiscal years 1988 through 1991 with matching grants limited to the lessor of 50% or $500,000 each year of the cost of any State program. The Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990 extended this authority through fiscal year 1995. The Agriculture Credit Improvement Act of 1992 raised the matching grant level from 50% to 70%. The USDA reorganization Act of 1994 extended the mediation program authority through fiscal year 2000 and expanded the program to include mediation issues involving wetland determinations, conservation compliance, rural water loan programs, grazing on National Forest System lands, pesticides, and other issues the Secretary deemed appropriate. The United States Grain Standards Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-472) re-authorized the program through fiscal year 2005; and clarified that grant funds may be used for farm credit cases, including USDA direct and guaranteed loans and loans for commercial entities. This Act also clarified that mediation services can facilitate counseling services (as appropriate) performed by a person other than a State mediation program mediator to prepare farmers prior to mediation. The mediation program has helped agricultural producers and their creditors resolve disputes confidentially in a non-adversarial setting, thus avoiding the traditional process of litigation, appeals, bankruptcy, and foreclosure. This is crucial as America's family farmers continue to deal with a fluctuating economy, low commodity prices, and a seemingly endless rash of natural disasters. Mediation helps resolve many areas of disputes, including farm loans, price support payments, wetland determinations, conservation compliance, and Conservation Reserve Program payment eligibility/limitation. The most difficult disputes to resolve involve farm loan programs (60%), Conservation Reserve Program (20%), and Production Flexibility Contracts (20%). In addition to formal mediation services, most of the certified states provide mediation training and consulting services to producers, lenders, and USDA agencies. This successful mediation program is continually growing for a good reason it works. The number of mediation clients increased from 3,804 in FY 2002 to over 4,991 clients in FY 2003. The number of agreements or resolutions increased from 73% to over 74% in FY 2003. The average cost per mediation case in FY 2003 was about $687 to $700. Mediation cases are becoming more complicated with multiple issues involving one or more federal state, and local jurisdictions in agricultural disputes. Mediation costs continue to rise, mostly because of increase training requirements to meet state mediation certification requirements and for mediators to become knowledgeable in other USDA areas now covered by this program. Mediation remains a cost-effective alternative to traditional litigation and appeals. Federal legislation encourages state involvement by providing matching grant funds to participating states. Currently, 30 states participate: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Maine and Virginia were added this fiscal year. The mediation program has often lauded by government officials, community leaders, and newspapers throughout the county for helping producers avoid expensive litigation and bankruptcy. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture stated in its February 2003 policy paper that the mediation program has played a significant role in resolving agricultural credit and other disputes. The mediation program has also received other significant recognition, including a National Association for rural Mental Health article citing the program's mental health benefits. The Center for Theology and Land lists the program in its Rapid Response brochure, a resource for farmers. The program is often recognized by government officials, community leaders, and newspapers throughout the county for helping producers avoid expensive litigation and bankruptcy. The mediation program was cited in a National Performance Review Report as an effective and efficient government program for rural residents. Many clients of the state mediation programs are referrals from community assistance counseling organizations and community hot line contacts. An effective USDA Certified State Mediation Program continues to require the support and cooperation of State government officials, USDA affected agencies, agricultural producers, creditors, mediators, FSA National Office, State, and Service Center personnel. Meeting the target of lower cost-per-case will be a challenge as costs for mediation services continue to rise, partly because additional training is required to become knowledgeable in other program areas now covered by the mediation program. However, mediation remains a cost-effective alternative to traditional litigation and appeals. The mediation program web site is at: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/outreach/mediation.htm