Homeland Spring 2017: Resolving rural conflicts
From boundary lines to bankruptcy, farmers and ranchers have resources
April 25, 2017
As the world population rapidly increases to nine billion people by 2050, the struggle for land use becomes more and more common. Especially as more and more urban consumers in America feel the pull of rural nostalgia and move into agrarian communities to raise families or simply live.
Oftentimes, this creates conflicts between farmers and ranchers and neighbors. A situation that is all to familiar to Amanda Zaluckyj, full time lawyer, daughter of Michigan corn and soybean farmers and owner of the blog, The Farmers Daughter USA.
According to Zaluckyj, her family has run into several conflicts over the years, including neighbors stealing fruit and vegetable crops and people driving through their fields. However, one stands out from the rest.
On Zaluckyj's birthday in 2015, she and her family were driving home from dinner when they came across some neighbor kids who had set up a tent in one of their fields near the road and were shooting a bb gun at passing cars, Zaluckyj said.
When Zaluckyj and her family confronted the kids, they took off, leaving her and her family to clean up the mess, she said.
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"We confiscated the guns and tent and took them to our house," she said. "Both parties contacted the police and it turned a bit nasty."
It is situations similar to Zaluckyj's where Forrest Buhler, staff attorney for Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services, comes to the aid of farmers.
Kansas Ag Mediation Services (KAMS) works to provide financial and legal advice, as well as preparation services to farmers and ranchers within the state of Kansas, Buhler said.
Generally, KAMS becomes involved after the issue has escalated and legal issues arise, Buhler said.
Buhler said he deals with legal issues between neighboring farmers, such as disputes over a boundary line or fence maintenance and issues between farmers and non-farmers, such as landowners that reside out of the state.
"My role is kind of helping them get a better understanding of what the issues are in their disputes and answering some basic legal questions," he said. y main goal is getting them hooked up with the financial counseling and legal assistance that we have, to give them some direct assistance in preparing for mediation," Buhler said.
The program, along with 40 others in different states around the country, is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), via the Farm Service Agency. While they are available to help with various types of legal issues, their main focus is helping farmers work with their credit lenders and USDA program appeals, when they are struggling to make loan payments. Buhler said they often provide mediation for the farmer or rancher and lender, trying to find alternatives to foreclosure or bankruptcy.
"My main goal is getting them hooked up with the financial counseling and legal assistance that we have, to give them some direct assistance in preparing for mediation," Buhler said.
According to Buhler, seeking mediation can prevent a suit and is required in some states, such as North Dakota.
"There are a lot of other costs associated with legal action and a lot of creditors want to try and help their customer stay in business," Buhler said. "If mediation doesn’t work and an agreement can’t be reached, then sometimes creditors may take other other action to foreclose on property or to collect their debt somehow through the legal system."
In Kansas, mediation is optional, but often times creditors and non-farmers will want to participate in mediation with the farmer to prevent those costs, he said.
"Our program has mediators that we contract with to actually do the mediations that come though our program," Buhler said. "We have about 10 mediators across the state that will go out to the community where the parties are located to work with them in a neutral location and facilitate the discussion between them to see what can be worked out."
In terms of legal advice, Buhler said KAMS works with a group called Kansas Legal Services and refers farmers to attorneys in their area.
Getting legal help though Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services is very affordable as it is based off the farmer or rancher's income and can vary from $20 an hour up to $80 an hour, Buhler says.
Zaluckyj's family's situation was resolved after both parties came together to talk it out, but she stressed getting to know neighbors and maintaining positive relationships with them in order to avoid conflict.
"Even if it just means waving to them when we drive past," she said.
She also recommended that farmers and property owners understand their legal rights and how they can enforce those rights.
“I think if the situation occurred again, we would call the police before confiscating the tent and perhaps even take photographs of what was happening,” Zaluckyj said. “Although I think we handled the situation properly, there were additional things we could have done to protect ourselves.”
Any farmers or ranchers that need legal or financial advice can find out if their state has a program similar to Kansas Ag Mediation Services by visiting http://www.fsa.usda.gov/Internet/FSA_File/ag_mediation_program.pdf.