Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - An agricultural mediation program that helps New Mexicans settle disputes over farm loans, grazing permits and eligibility for government farm programs wan a five-year extension under recently signed federal legislation.
"This is a vote of confidence for what mediation has been able to accomplish," said Patrick Sullivan, who administers the program for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
Mediation provides an alternative to formal appeals and court battles. New Mexico's program, which is voluntary and free of charge to those who qualify, is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
By providing a trained, neutral mediator, NMSU has helped dozens of New Mexicans 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 year, 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."
Agricultural mediation programs in 25 states have been reauthorized through 2005. Nearly 4,700 clients across the country took part in agricultural mediation and more than 3,400 reached agreements through the program in fiscal year 2000, according to USDA statistics.
USDA mediation programs began in 1987 as a response to the farm credit crisis of the 1980s, Sullivan said. "Congress decided there should be another mechanism for farmers and ranchers to resolve differences outside the court system or formal appeals process Đ something that was fair, fast, efficient, economical and most of all, user-friendly."
Another advantage to mediation is that it typically stays the clock on administrative deadlines, Sullivan said. Even if participants fail to reach an agreement, they usually gain a better understanding of the issues involved, he said.
If mediation if 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.
During USDA reorganization in 1994, new legislation expanded mediation programs. New Mexico is among 25 states that now offer agricultural mediation programs for issues ranging from rural water loans to wetlands designations. Last year, the program expanded to include disputes between grazing permit holders and the U.S. Forest Service, Sullivan said.
For more information about eligibility for the agricultural mediation program, contact Sullivan toll-free at (800) 289-6577.
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