February 17, 2004

SIU Country Column -- SIUC expands agriculture mediation services

by K.C. Jaehnig

In the six years since Southern Illinois University Carbondale began offering free mediation services to Illinois farmers wrangling with the federal government, a few things have changed.

The program has expanded. It now covers disputes with four U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies: the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Risk Management Agency and Rural Housing. In addition, more farmers are using it; mediators have traveled to all but 19 of the state’s 102 counties.

But the goal remains the same.

“We’re there to facilitate discussion and help the parties find between themselves a solution to the dispute that brought them to the table,” said Kim S. Harris, SIUC associate professor of agribusiness economics who serves as a mediator in the southern part of the state.

Most disputes involve disagreements over the way USDA agencies have interpreted or applied the rules relating to their various programs.

“Many times you find that there’s a misunderstanding as to how a decision was arrived at,” Harris said.

“By the end of the mediation, everybody understands everybody else’s position. They may still disagree, but most of the anger is diffused, and that’s important because these farmers are going to have to continue to work with agency staff when they participate in other programs.”

Problems seem to spike when agencies get new regulations, Harris said.

“They’re written in Washington, D.C., and then sent out for others to administer,” he said. “Sometimes, those who write the regulations have not thought out all the possible scenarios.

“And even though the agency people are pro-farmer and many times will bend over backward to see them participate in as many programs as they can, they have to follow the rules — their hands are tied.”

While mediation is not arbitration — “We have no authority to rule in one party’s favor,” Harris said — agencies agree to reverse their decisions about a third of the time. Roughly a quarter of the farmers go on to appeal at the state or national level. This is not a bad thing, Harris believes.

“If enough people do that because of the way a certain regulation is being applied, it may make the government say, ‘Hey, we need to make some changes in that particular regulation,’” he said.

To help farmers avoid the problems that bring them to mediation, Harris offered two tips.

“Keep a very good system of records — the agencies do,” he said. “When you get into mediation, hearsay has no value. You need hard information and documents to back up your claims and get relief.

“And read what you’re signing. Some of these programs are so complicated that there are 10 pages of rules you have to read through. The temptation is just to say, ‘Show me where to sign,’ but that can come back to haunt you. Saying you didn’t know what was in there is no justification for overturning a decision.”

SIUC’s School of Law runs the mediation service, a program jointly sponsored with the College of Agricultural Sciences. For more information, visit the law school Web site at http://www.law.siu.edu, click on the link for clinics and public services and then click on the link for the Illinois Agriculture Mediation Program.