A farm mediation specialist called me a few weeks ago.  The mediator said there are rumblings that low farm commodity prices are triggering an uptick in distressed loans that could lead to an increased need for farm debt mediation services.  The caller also was looking for information about how to recognize when clients need behavioral health services.

The professional mediator described a situation that occurred several years ago with a farm family involved in mediation.  The couple were about to lose their farm home after sustaining recurrent losses in their cattle-feeding business. 

During a mediation session with their lenders, the husband became volatile and refused to consider any options.  His wife reluctantly accompanied him as he stormed out of the meeting. 

The next day the mediator heard that the husband had hit his wife at their home, injuring her.  Should the mediator have better gauged the couple’s need for behavioral healthcare or some other kind of assistance?   

I determined to answer the mediator’s question.  This column resulted from the further consideration I gave to her query.  

What is professional mediation?  Mediation is a process of dispute resolution that can be undertaken when prior discussions among the disputants and their representatives, such as attorneys, have not led to a satisfactory agreement among the disputants. 

There are a variety of mediation strategies. Trained mediators–preferably two persons working together–help the disputants sort through issues together in a fair fashion that gives all the involved parties opportunity to express their positions and to guide them through negotiation and compromise to reach agreement.  Sometimes the disputants remain physically apart and the mediators go back and forth among the parties to exchange information and proposals.  

Mediation can be undertaken to attempt to settle a variety of disputes, such as custody of children in a divorce, differences over contracts, or almost any intractable disagreement.  This article focuses on farm dispute mediation. 

As I developed this article, I drew on my 35 years’ experience helping agricultural families and corporations, as well as courts, to resolve farming-related conflicts of all types.  I am not a certified farm mediation specialist; I am a licensed psychologist.   

If mediation does not succeed in resolving a farm dispute, usually the next steps are binding arbitration, in which the parties agree to accept an arbitrator’s recommended solution, or a lawsuit.  Both of these methods of resolving disagreements are usually more expensive for the disputants and often they yield less control over the outcome and less palatable outcomes than negotiated settlements.

Mediation is a learning process.  The participants can learn valuable skills such as, but not limited to, the following. 

  • How to listen to others and to adhere to rules of decorum such as refraining from interruptions, making threats, and to take adequate time to consider matters;
  • How to negotiate, rather than to dominate;
  • To appreciate other points of view that enlarge the understanding of issues;
  • To set aside one’s personal satisfaction only, in favor of joint compromise among disputants as a healthier outcome that reduces anger, repairs hurts, and builds the possibility of mutually positive relations in the future;
  • To practice confidentiality, fairness, respect, tolerance, humility and trust;
  • When to bring in outside expertise, such as farm business consultants and professionals of all types, including behavioral healthcare providers.

When is it beneficial to bring in outside expertise to the mediation process?  There is no single answer to the question, but a general guideline is when the mediation is not progressing toward reduction of the differences among the disputants. 

All the disputants and mediators have the right to request additional expertise, but only to resolve the stalemate and not to bolster one party over the other participants.   The mediators should encourage the participants to share in the determination of whether or not to request additional input.

In the situation described by the professional mediator who called me, it may have helped if a behavioral health counselor who understood farming had been present to support the farm couple and to assist them in managing their frustrations.   

The USDA Agricultural Mediation Program began as part of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help states develop USDA Certified State Agricultural Loan Mediation Programs.  The Act authorized $7.5 million for the fiscal years 1988 through 1991 to assist states through matching grants to deal with farm credit disputes in response to the 1980s Farm Crisis.  The Act was extended through fiscal 1995.

The current Farm Bill that went into effect in 2014 lowered the amount of USDA funds available to agricultural states to provide farm debt mediation services.  Three million dollars in grants are available yearly on a competitive basis through matching state funds to provide farm debt mediation and related conflict resolution services.   

Currently 34 states offer agricultural mediation services.  A list of these states and contact information is available online: www.rma.usda.gov/regs/mediation.html.

Dr. Rosmann is a farm owner and former farm operator who lives near Harlan, Iowa. To contact him visit the website: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.