State promotes Ag Mediation Program

Jim Auer

The ag industry contributes billions to Montana’s economy, but the Montana Department of Agriculture knows the industry doesn’t happen without disputes. That, according to Jim Auer, is why the department introduced the Agricultural Mediation Program.

Created federally in 1987, each state must apply to the USDA to create its own certified program. Auer wrote Montana’s application, and became the program’s manager when it officially started in October 2016.

“It wasn’t really on our radar until a couple of years ago,” Auer said. “We looked out on the landscape of Montana, and saw disputes hold up agricultural business.”

While the federal Agricultural Mediation Program was created to address issues individual producers had with the USDA, many state programs have broadened to work on any type of ag dispute. One reason, Auer said, was because parties often turn straight to litigation, which is an expensive resolution.

“We mediate at $100 per hour, per party,” he said. “That’s a flexible rate. If that’s not affordable, we will absolutely consider anything folks want to call in with.

“We don’t want cost to be limiting, we really want to offer these services.”

Unlike a judge, mediators don’t have any authority. Auer explained they instead serve as an outside party who hears both sides of a problem, and helps everyone work through issues.

“Often times, it’s just getting folks to sit down, talk through the dispute they’re having and talk through the issues with the other parties,” he said.

Auer added a different process means a different definition of success. State mediators aim for parties to leave with an agreement on how to proceed.

“Mediation is meant to empower the parties in a dispute to make decisions, instead of having decisions handed to them by a judge or an arbitrator,” he said.

In addition to being cheaper and more flexible in its outcomes, Auer said mediation is also often quicker.

“We try to get someone in within a couple of weeks for that first mediation,” he said. “We’ve not done any that have gone into multiple sessions, and the longest mediation so far has been about six hours.”

Since its start, Montana’s Agricultural Mediation Program has done roughly 10 mediations. Auer said most dealt with USDA disputes, but the state is looking to expand that reach.

“Some areas where we’re trying to promote our program are the issues of farm and ranch family transition … and water rights,” he said. “Those are the two main ones we’ve been working on.”

Auer knows these can be tough topics for Montanans, but says mediators are prepared for helping parties work through them.

“To be a mediator in this program, you have to have 60 hours of basic mediation training, and 20 hours of continuing education every two years,” he said.

If any ag producers are interested in Montana’s Agricultural Mediation Program, or have questions about what it covers, they can reach Auer at 406-444-5424 or ag.mediation@mt.gov.

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