Filling in the Missing Pieces
Mediating agriculture disputes can be like finding the piece that lets people solve their own puzzle
By Kathy Ursprung
If the first farm cultivation started in Mesopotamia about 10,000 years ago, surely the first agricultural dispute wasn’t far behind.
In the United States alone, the history of agriculture is rife with epic disputes: the cattle ranchers versus the sheep farmers, the Hatfield and McCoy feud that was attributed to a stolen hog, or the range wars of the Old West over water and grazing rights.
Today, some of the problems are still the same, but others are more complex. They include wetlands, farm program compliance, pesticides, agriculture loans, organic certification, government disputes and succession plans.
Regardless of the problem, the solution involves people and how they communicate.
That’s where Executive Director Marti Kantola Dane and Six Rivers Dispute Resolution Center come in. Six Rivers operates Oregon’s Certified Agriculture Mediation Program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Six Rivers can step in when the parties of a conflict are too personally involved to see how to resolve it, and help them find their way to a solution of their own making.
“The concept of mediation and conflict resolution is that if I’m somebody who is going to step into someone else’s stuff, it can’t be my own stuff,” Marti says. “It’s really important and easy to overlook. You have to be neutral. It has to be something I can truly detach from. Otherwise, I’m a part of it.”
The job of Marti and her mediators is to find the situation’s challenges that may lie hidden beneath the most obvious reason for the dispute.
“Sometimes, you can feel that a dispute comes to the table about a fence line or a contract that got cancelled or mitigated in some way,” Marti says. “Often, that’s what’s going on.”
Yet not all disputes are as clear-cut as they may appear on the surface.
“Really, as you dig down deeper, it was a decision made because of an ongoing pattern of behaviors,” Marti says. “The two parties weren’t hearing or seeing each other, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some cases are literally two generations back when somebody upset somebody, and those people have never talked again.”
Six Rivers also works on a wide range of disputes unrelated to agriculture. For example, at a recent workshop, Marti helped a group of interns learn how to be more effective listeners in the workplace.
The company can help with landlord-tenant disputes, divorces and neighbor disputes. It offers mediation training, and has a “DIY Mediation” link on its website.
Agriculture has its own federally funded program due to the long-term consequences that can result from conflicts.
“If you can’t work out the problem, it can have devastating results for a family, a century farm or an entire crop for the next five years,” Marti says.
The program traces back to the 1980s era when family farming was in crisis. “There was a lot of debt, and there was a lot of equity as well in family farms and ranches across the country, but the economy was tanking and prices were going down,” Marti says. “People needed to take loans to get from one year to the next, but when the credit came due it was secured by things that were necessary for farm operations.”
She recalls the story of a farmer who reached his wits’ end when he was yet again rejected for a loan. He pulled out a shotgun and shot the lender.
“At this time, a shooting at this kind of establishment was huge,” Marti says. “The suicide rate among farmers was also huge because they saw it as the only option to save the family farm. They needed a fix of sorts, a way to reduce stress, and create relief for farmers and ranchers.”
The state mediation programs were among other efforts to help farmers get on firmer footing.
Today, new agricultural challenges continue to emerge. In 2015, for example, a law was passed in Josephine County that banned growing genetically modified crops.
“At the state level, people started questioning how much control a county should have over farming,” Marti says. “Oregon is known all over the world for its land-use laws and what they did to preserve land for farming. Now people are figuring out that people who are doing the growing, as opposed to the legislature, should be the ones making the decision.”
But what happens when two perfectly acceptable kinds of farming practices come into conflict with each other? That’s where professional mediation comes in.
For example, in more complex negotiations, succession plans—who will take over the farm after the current generation—can require a complex range of assistance. A mediator can help pull together a team of experts such as lawyers, counselors, accountants and hospice.
“It helps to have someone facilitate that circle of people, and it doesn’t always have to be mom,” Marti says.
Sometimes, people can have a difficult time accepting the services of a mediator. Some people equate it to arbitration, which imposes a solution on the situation. But that’s not the case with mediation.
“Keeping control of your own self-determination is literally one of the ethical guidelines for mediation,” Marti says. “But I think there is ingrained in our society a belief that even mediation at its purest level is other people intervening, when every individual ought to be able to make some decisions.”
When that’s not the case, mediation may help reach the solution. For many of these farm conflicts, the service is free.
Though it is rarely a quick solution, it can be effective. Six Rivers has a 92% satisfaction rate.
“Admitting you need a different strategy is a little easier than pulling out your guns,” Marti says.
For more information about Six Rivers Dispute Resolution Center and Oregon’s USDA Certified Agricultural Mediation Program, go to 6rivers.org.