Experts Talk Ways of Avoiding Conflicts With Neighbors

11/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

PRINCESS ANNE, Md. — While farming is important to Maryland’s economy, conflicts between agricultural operations, and government regulators and citizens often arise.

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the recent, unsuccessful lawsuit that threatened to bankrupt a small poultry farmer has a deeply personal connotation. It was the topic of discussion at a presentation by Save Farm Families at the recent annual poultry producers gathering in Ocean City, Md., and was a topic of discussion at a small farm conference at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore on Nov. 9.

Speaking at the small farm conference, Mae Johnson of ACRes, or Agriculture Council Resolution Service, said mediation can enable parties in a conflict to reach resolution without a legal battle. In fact, mediation is so important that it is part of the Maryland Right-to-Farm law that requires mediation before a lawsuit can go forward. Mediation is only as successful as the parties’ ability to be open-minded and understand where the other person is coming from.

There are two potential outcomes to mediation. One is a settlement. The other is no settlement and the conflict resolution goes to the appeals process or even a lawsuit. Lawsuits can be expensive and time consuming.

While mediation can be in everyone’s best interests, so long as what they seek is a resolution of the conflict, Johnson said this was not the case in the lawsuit involving the Waterkeepers Alliance and the poultry farmer.

“What they wanted was publicity,” Johnson said.

“Conflict may arise because of who we are as the result of our experiences,” she added. Someone who grew up in an urban area may fall in love with a housing development nestled among farm fields, but have no idea of the noises and smells they will experience as a crop is planted, fertilized and harvested. She pointed out that every conflict also represents an opportunity.

The types of conflict she deals with as part of her job often result from adverse decisions made by the USDA or Maryland Department of Agriculture that begins when a farmer receives a letter denying him or her the right to participate in a departmental program. Even when the agency denies such a request, the farmer has the right to choose an appeal — usually in the form of an administrative hearing — or mediation.

When the farmer chooses mediation, Johnson or another of her colleagues goes to work to arrange a mediation session. Her office conducts orientation sessions to help persons who will be involved in a mediation to understand the process and how to prepare. Johnson said a local Extension office can often help a farmer prepare for that meeting.

In mediation or appeal, the decision does not always go against the farmer, in part because the government is willing to learn and make something in the regulations more clear and give the farmer an extension to comply.

Other conflicts include agricultural credit issues due to a farmer having a bad production year, illness or any number of other unforeseen circumstances that cause a farmer to fall behind on loan payments.

Johnson said ACRes will help the lending institution and the farmer in an effort to reach a resolution allowing the farmer to remain in agriculture. Johnson presented summaries of several actual mediation cases which were successfully resolved without legal action, including one in which a farm service loan officer was able to restructure a loan for a woman who was forced into retirement. Like many other farmers, the woman had a second job off the farm.

Another situation where ACRes can step in is to help the heirs of a family farm figure out what to do when conflict arises. As the population ages and farm land rises in value, continuation of a farming operation is not guaranteed. Siblings often have conflicting interests in how to dispose of the family farm and need a disinterested person to help everyone see the possibilities as well as the needs of others.

Paul Goeringer with the Agricultural Law Education Project, explained how right-to-farm laws came into existence and how they work to protect farmers. Maryland, like most states, has a right-to-farm statute and 20 of 23 counties in the state also have their own.

“The intent is to discourage farm neighbors from pursuing nuisance lawsuits against agriculture operators because of smell, noise, etc.,” Goeringer said. Maryland’s statute is unique because it requires mediation before further legal action can be taken.

Goeringer provided participants with a summary of Maryland’s Right-to-Farm law and described what farmers can do to prevent or manage conflict.

One of the most important things farmers can do is to keep records, such as when pesticide was applied, how much and how. A diary of daily operations listing the actions taken, including chemicals and equipment used, along with a brief explanation of the rationale, can be very helpful in refuting claims based on misunderstandings. This brochure is available from the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

If the issue is a letter from regulators, Goeringer suggests writing a follow-up letter explaining your take on it.

He suggested farmers also get to know their neighbors and forewarn them of activities that might disrupt good relations. One attendee said he put up a sign on his land alerting residents of a housing development near him that he would be applying fertilizer and that it would smell for several days.

Other suggestions included hosting an annual barbecue or other social event, or offering tours of the farm so neighbors know why certain activities take place and what to expect.

Even with the right-to-farm law, there are some gray areas. Since there is no way to eliminate 100 percent of legal risk, Goeringer also said comprehensive liability insurance was a prudent action.

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