Mediation: It’s Your Solution
By Lucy Pauley, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Mediation Coordinator
Hopefully you’ve heard about the Mediation Program at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture by now. Perhaps you’ve seen our booth at an annual convention or saw an ad in the Roundup. Maybe you have a neighbor who has used mediation to appeal a disaster determination with the USDA Farm Services Agency. Possibly you have a family member who’s requested mediation with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) regarding a decrease in AUMs for the upcoming grazing season. You may have a friend who has mediated with their lender to work through farm credit issues like an operating loan or you attended a workshop that we co-hosted on conflict resolution skills or drought contingency plans.
Mediation may be one of those terms you’ve heard about, but you don’t think it could apply to your situation. Whatever you’re knowledge of mediation or the Mediation Program may be, it’s important to know that it can be a powerful tool if you find yourself in a conflict.
The Mediation Program at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture was started in 1987 as a result of the farm credit crisis. We first worked in agricultural credit issues with private lenders and the USDA Farm Services Agency, then Farmers’ Home Administration, until the late 1990s. In 1998, the Wyoming Legislature expanded our duties to include a wide variety of natural resource issues.
Today, we assist Wyoming producers and landowners who are involved in disputes with additional USDA agencies like Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Risk Management Agency (RMA), energy development on private land, neighbor versus neighbor conflicts, irrigation disputes, estate planning conversations, workplace disputes and much more.
Mitigation. Medication. Meditation. What is mediation anyway?
Some producers are hesitant to request mediation because they are unsure of what the process entails. Despite the confusion, mediation is actually a fairly straight-forward process. A trained, neutral third-party, the mediator, sits down with parties in a dispute to discuss the situation and help them reach a mutually-agreeable solution.
Mediators do not act as judges or arbitrators in determining who is at fault or who is right or wrong. Mediators do not solve the problem for the parties or decide on solutions. Rather, a mediator helps the parties talk about the events that have led to the conflict, brainstorm possible solutions and then hopefully help them develop an agreement that is acceptable to both sides. The goal of mediation is to help the parties develop a solution that is better than the status quo.
Mediation is a useful tool for resolving conflicts in Wyoming. We have mediators available across the state who have been trained and have experience working with agricultural producers. Many of our mediators work full-time in the agricultural industry through UW Extension or other natural resource-related state and federal agencies. We do have a few producers on our roster, as well.
Mediation can be considered as a low-cost, time-saving approach to resolving disputes. Mediation is quicker than the traditional legal system. From the time we receive the request, most parties are at the mediation table within four weeks. Depending on the type of mediation, the mediation sessions can range from no-cost to the participants to reimbursing the mediator for their time and travel.
In Wyoming, mediation is voluntary and confidential. Parties cannot be forced to come to mediation. Once in mediation, you can’t be compelled to come to an agreement either. Any final agreement that is reached is done so with the participation of both parties. Regarding confidentiality, mediators do not share the contents of a mediation session with anyone outside of the discussion. State law protects mediator confidentiality, and we cannot be compelled to testify in court.
Finally, mediation is most successful when the parties decide to come to the table after they’ve tried to negotiate but they’ve reached an impasse. If both sides want to resolve the issue but tensions are high and emotions or communication styles have prevented the parties from reaching an agreement, mediation can be helpful. While there will be some disputes and cases that are better suited for the traditional court system, giving mediation a try usually does not preclude either party from seeking other ways to resolve the conflict if mediation is unsuccessful.
In agriculture, the role of mediation is growing. In the past year, we’ve assisted producers and the USFS staff with grazing permit disputes, provided mediation for easement issues with NRCS, mediated with a landowner and a seismic exploration company regarding a surface use agreement, provided mediators for agricultural families needing to have a conversation about the future of the ag operation and more. When both parties are committed to resolving the dispute, the possibilities in mediation are endless.
If you have an issue and are interested in learning more about the mediation process, please call Lucy Pauley at 307-777-8788. All inquiries are confidential. You can also learn more about our program at wyagric.state.wy.us/divisions/nrp/mediation-program.