UF Offers Agricultural Mediation Service For USDA Disputes
GAINESVILLE — Farmers who have a dispute with the U.S. Department of Agriculture may find convenient and cost-effective relief through a new mediation service offered free statewide by the University of Florida.
With $211,000 in USDA grants, the UF College of Law’s Institute for Dispute Resolution, in conjunction with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has established the Florida Agricultural Mediation Service for anyone who has a disagreement with the department. The service will mediate agricultural credit problems, USDA decisions, wetland determinations, boundary disputes and other issues.
“We’re pleased to have the opportunity to provide mediation services to farmers throughout the state of Florida,” said program Director Alison Gerencser. “Mediation saves time and expense and is rapidly growing in popularity as a way of solving all sorts of disputes.”
Florida becomes one of about two dozen states with a USDA mediation service, said UF law Professor Robert Moberly, director of the institute and principal investigator on the grant. The USDA established the mediation program in 1987 to help agricultural producers, their creditors and anyone else directly affected by the actions of the USDA. The objectives are to resolve disputes, reduce the number of costly administrative appeals and avoid litigation and bankruptcies.
“More people are beginning to see how simple and effective mediation can be,” said David Burt, a Daytona Beach lawyer who will serve as a program mediator. “Very often, disputes that go to mediation can be resolved in half a day.” The standard procedure for USDA appeals “can be a long, involved and difficult process,” he added, “and farmers would just as soon be out doing what they do best — growing their crops.”
In mediation, a trained, impartial mediator helps people look at their mutual problems, identify and consider options and determine if they can agree on a solution. A mediator has no decision-making authority, and unlike a judge or arbitrator, cannot decide what is right or make anyone do anything.
Roy Carriker, a professor of food and resource economics at UF and an adviser to the project on agricultural issues, said the program should prove attractive to farmers, especially with mediation being offered in agriculture extension offices throughout the state.
“To the extent the mediation service can be provided at a location that’s convenient to the farmer, then I really do think mediation is an advantage to the farmer, especially for those farmers who are really strapped for cash,” he said. “That could be one reason why they’re in mediation — because they’ve got financial difficulties that have kept them from satisfying the terms of a loan.”
To seek mediation concerning USDA decisions, write the Florida Agricultural Mediation Service, P.O. Box 117624, Gainesville, FL, 32611-7624, within 18 days of the disputed decision. Mediation is not an option in cases where an appeal already has been filed with USDA. A toll-free number has been established for the service at 1-888-712-9421. Information also can be obtained on the Internet at http://grove.ufl.edu/~mediate/.
- Jim Hellehaard