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Dispute Resolution training reveals farm and ranch concerns

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a Texas Dispute Resolution System mediator training session in Austin. They asked me to talk about the farm bill under debate at the time and to offer some insight into what sorts of disputes might arise from changes in the 2002 legislation.

Someone with the organization apparently assumed I would have some credibility on the issues or could at least sound like I did. It was an interesting assignment and I discussed some of the trigger points I thought farmers and ranchers would react to. Insurance coverage, including cost and response time, I thought, would be a critical issue. Payment limitations would vex quite a few producers. Reducing the amount of money available for commodity programs was another expected sore spot.

The message was well-received, in spite of the messenger, and participants had many good questions following my spiel. I learned more than I taught, which is often the case when I engage in question and answer sessions.

Apparently, the folks at the Office of Dispute Resolution in Lubbock were not too disappointed in my performance because they asked me to come back in late September and discuss how farmers have reacted to the 2008 farm legislation. We met in Salado, a quaint, picturesque little town hugging the edge of I-35 about an hour in non-rush hour traffic north of Austin.

This group, Texas Rural Mediation Services, was established in 2000 to administer the Texas USDA Mediation Program. They deal with diverse rural issues including loans (car, home, land, etc.); labor issues; family issues including divorce, custody, and caring for the elderly; healthcare; insurance; landlord/tenant disputes; neighbor issues (barking dogs, livestock odors, boundary disputes, etc.); rural loans, grants and disaster assistance; school and adolescent issues; and service and contract problems.

In other words, they deal with just about anything you can imagine that could come up in any community, family or workplace, with the added stresses that come from living in rural America. Mediators hope to resolve issues without having them get to court.

At the latest training session, in addition to my feeble attempts to update folks on the farm bill, we heard from experts on the animal identification program, new Farm Service Agency regulations, new Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, rural development and civil rights litigation.

We’ll offer some insight into some of those issues in more detailed Farm Press articles. As for the farm bill issue, I suggested that farmers are basically OK with new legislation. It’s not as strong as the 2002 law but, in many ways, better than many expected during the long debate. They took some cuts with lower payment limitations, but not as low as some legislators wanted.

Some issues remain with insurance. And farmers continue to fear that legislators will re-open the farm law and start cutting and adjusting funds. That’s always a concern.

They also dread Cap and Trade legislation, fearing higher energy costs will be much greater than what they’d get from selling carbon credits. Ranchers at the meeting are concerned about making a voluntary animal identification program mandatory.

But a consensus we discovered was that the main thing farmers want from farm legislation is consistency. At best, laws are reworked every four to five years and often a farm program is re-visited before it expires and that usually means reduced funds for commodity programs.

We agreed that farmers have trouble developing a long-range strategy, working as far as five years out on plans to expand, change enterprise options, or bring in a son or daughter as partner. Most businesses can develop 10-year plans, maybe even longer range options; farmers, not so much.

With farm legislation changing every two years or so, farmers and ranchers find that kind of planning difficult to achieve. When disputes arise from this farm law, inconsistency could well be the cause. Mediators may find plenty to do.

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