Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES -- New Mexico ranchers who have grazing permit disputes with the U.S. Forest Service can now attempt to work out their differences through mediation.
New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service administers a voluntary, no-cost mediation program that is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NMSU will provide a trained, neutral mediator to work with eligible ranchers and Forest Service staff.
The Forest Service recently issued final regulations for the grazing permit program, allowing NMSU to expand its range of agricultural mediation services, said Patrick Sullivan, an NMSU agricultural economist who oversees the program.
"Our role in mediation originated as a result of the farm credit crisis back in the 1980s," he said. "Congress decided there should be another mechanism for farmers and ranchers to resolve differences outside the court system or formal appeals process -- something that was fair, fast, efficient, economical and most of all, user-friendly."
When USDA was reorganized in 1994, new legislation expanded mediation programs. New Mexico is among 22 states that now offer agricultural mediation programs for issues ranging from rural water loans to wetlands designations.
NMSU has helped dozens of producers and lenders find ways to settle disputes over agricultural loans, Sullivan said. The university also assists with disagreements over farm program compliance, such as eligibility for the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal effort to remove erosion-prone land from production in exchange for government payments.
"In the last 10 years, our overall success rate has been over 80 percent in dealing with both borrower-creditor and farm program compliance issues," Sullivan said. "Mediation is a process that works, and a process that keeps relationships intact."
Another advantage to mediation is that it typically stays the clock on administrative deadlines, Sullivan said. Even if it fails, participants usually gain a better understanding of the issues involved, he added.
If mediation is unsuccessful, producers are still free to pursue a formal appeal through the federal agency or take legal action. "By entering mediation, they do not waive any of their rights," Sullivan said.
For more information about eligibility for the agricultural mediation program, contact Sullivan at (505) 646-2433.
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