Maine Farmcast Episode 04: Agriculture Mediation and Farm Mental Health with Lucy Wess, Esq. and Leslie Forstadt, Ph.D.

On this episode of the Maine Farmcast, Dr. Colt W. Knight, Associate Extension Professor and State Livestock Specialist, has a serious conversation with Lucy Wess, Esq., Program Director of the Maine Agricultural Mediation Program, and Leslie Forstadt, Ph.D., UMaine Extension Professor in Human Development and Program Grant Administrator, about farmer mental health and agricultural mediation in January 2024.

Episode Resources

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Colt Knight: 00:29

Welcome to the Maine Farmcast. I’m your host, Dr. Colt Knight. I’m an Associate Extension Professor with the Cooperative Extension. And today, I am joined with some fellow Cooperative Extension folks, Lucy Wess and Leslie Forstadt. Great to have you with us.

Leslie Forstadt: 00:46

Good to be here.

Lucy Wess: 00:47

Yeah. Definitely.

Colt Knight: 00:48

Alright. So I’m gonna start with Lucy.

Lucy Wess: 00:51


Colt Knight: 00:51

Lucy, can you tell us what your job is and how it relates to farmers in Maine?

Lucy Wess: 00:59

Sure. So I’m the director of the Maine Agricultural Mediation Program. We’re one of 43 programs across the country. We were created in the 1980’s in response to the farm crisis. Unfortunately, people were really stressed out about finances in particular, but lots of other things. And so there were a lot of suicides that were meant to look like accidents so that families could get full benefits. And so out of that kind of ugly and dark time, a really great program was born. So it was born in ’87, and then it came here to Maine in 2004. And so we do a lot of different things, but I think to boil it down, it really is about helping people have difficult conversations. Oftentimes people do come to us when they’re at the point of crisis. We’re working on trying to get people to come and have a chat proactively. Culturally, we don’t do that very often. We wait until we’re kinda stuck, or there’s no other place to go. But yeah, that’s really what we do. And we try to really do it with understanding, and compassion, and support because I think it’s really hard for people to ask for help. We’re a really independent nation. And so I do think that once people do reach out to us, we help if we can. We connect. If we can’t, we’re definitely in the yes business. And people who’ve gone through mediation or other types of conflict resolution often come out on the other side smiling and relieved. And then also knowing too that they can come back because they know a little bit more about what we do and how we do it. So I’ve heard of Ag Mediation before, and I knew we had a program here in Maine, but I’ve never been associated with it at all. So I wasn’t really sure what exactly what it meant. And I was at a national swine conference in Minnesota at the Mall of America of all places to have a swine conference. And they brought in the leader of the Ag Mediation Program in Minnesota to give a talk. And those services sounded really pertinent to the folks at Maine because they were mediating between banks and farmers. Sucession planning. So, like, the example they gave is grandpa ran off with the neighbor and got married in Mexico and just totally abandoned the farm. And the entire family had to fight to figure out who was in charge? Who got what? What was gonna happen? And they stepped in and were able to talk everyone through that process. And so I thought it was really important that farmers in Maine knew that there were things like that available for just crazy situations that – no one in farming has a, like, a standard issue. It’s always some kind of way complicated to the max. I thought that was really cool that we had programs offered like that.

Lucy Wess: 04:23

Yeah. And they’re no cost. I think first is letting people know that we exist, and then also the idea of, yeah, we’re a USDA FSA federally funded program, and that’s why we exist. Yeah. Low cost. No cost. Right now, we’re no cost, which is great. So we’re really there and we don’t have to worry about the money piece. We can really focus on the people and, yeah, what are the needs, the goals, the issues. Sifting through that stuff, helping people even clarify it for themselves, helping to support communication. Oftentimes, by the time people hear about us or get to us, they’ve, like, stopped communicating, or any communication isn’t fruitful. So we’re able to help people take a breath, and help take a step back, and talk to us because we’re new. They – you know, sharing the situation anyway and their viewpoint. And then the idea of taking our time. The cool thing about agricultural mediation, because I have a background working in the courts and community mediation, is we have the luxury of taking some space to really even work with people one on one. We call them pre-meetings, before, so it isn’t the idea of getting in a room with somebody who’s your frenemy and trying to hash this out. We really want to get to know – our staff wants to get to know people, our comediators wanna get to know people, and who they are, and how they work, and also what the situation is, and have some ideas of what are some possible pathways before we even start talking with and among everybody involved.

Colt Knight: 06:05

And as an independent mediator, one of the things that I thought was really cool is, you know, both sides are voluntary in this process.

Lucy Wess: 06:16

Absolutely. Yeah.

Colt Knight: 06:17

And so you don’t really have any power or authority. So you’re a true independent mediator between the two interested parties, or do you have multiple interested parties sometimes?

Lucy Wess: 06:29

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely. There can be lots of different people in the room. You’re almost like a conductor at that point. We also, speaking of conductor too, like, if people have attorneys, attorneys are welcome. If people need interpreters, we can help set that up. So the people in the room who need to be there, plus their support or advisors. We can also, you know, once we start talking to folks, sometimes we’re like, hey, maybe they need to talk to an expert, you know. Would it be okay if this person comes in and specifically speaks to the tax implications of farm succession? Or maybe before we get in the room or in between sessions, it might be helpful for – you know, to give some homework, to maybe connect people to some experts. Specifically with farm succession, there is a whole team. It isn’t just a mediator or a coordinator. Usually, there’s legal professionals involved. There’s financial professionals for the business and for the tax implications. I don’t want to scare anybody. I think farm succession, transfer, planning, all of those things can be really scary. I don’t know from a personal perspective, but in trying to get the word out and talk about it, it’s something it sounds a lot of times like people want to avoid, and it’s gonna happen one way or another, and the more proactive, oftentimes less messy. But there are lots of people involved, and it is complicated, but that’s why we’re here to help support, coordinate, conduct.

Colt Knight: 08:06

At what point should you approach an Ag mediator? You know, do you wait for it to hit the fan first? Or is there – at what point do you think is the appropriate time to reach out to y’all?

Lucy Wess: 08:20

So I think yesterday is the appropriate answer. So recently, Leslie and I had attended the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, their annual conference. And I went to a session on succession because I’m always trying to learn more. And both stories that were shared, there was this catalyzing event, this, like, oh, no moment. So even if people were thinking about it, oftentimes, people need a push to go, we really gotta do this. We’ve been thinking about it, considering. Oftentimes with that, you limit your options because then you’re reacting instead of responding. And so, yeah, I think, age wise, never too early, in the life of the farm, never too early. Or never too late either. I think the idea is any kind of guidance, support, connection to resources is gonna be beneficial. It’s not gonna be easy, but in the end, it’ll make things a lot more smooth, and a lot more… I don’t know. I can’t think of a word. Were you gonna chime in?

Leslie Forstadt: 09:34

Well, yeah. This is Leslie, and I’m a human development specialist and professor of Extension. I work closely with Lucy in the Ag Mediation Program. One of the things that’s just coming to mind about timing is we’ve had cases where siblings, who are trying to figure out what’s gonna happen with land that was a farm and have varying levels of interest in continuing the business, have met with the Ag Mediation Program, and have not been ready to make decisions yet. And then folks kinda – it’ll simmer for a little bit, and then it might come back in another year, or another two years. So it’s not like a one and done kind of a process to do mediation. It’s often many sessions over time, which is great because then you get, instead of this catalytic event where you, like, gotta do something right now, it gives you time to plan and make decisions when you’re ready.

Colt Knight: 10:35

And we talked a little bit about secession planning, but what other types of conflicts can Ag mediators mediate, or what are the common ones that you see more often than not?

Leslie Forstadt: 10:50

In the recent past, we’ve had a couple of neighbor disputes and land, over land, over leases. And these are not always super contentious. Sometimes it just – it’s that things are getting confusing and getting muddy. And by meeting with the Ag Mediation Program and sometimes seeking expertise with folks who know more about leases, or folks who know about abandoned roads, that turns out to be a pretty important thing in Maine is that you get property disputes when you’re neighboring a farm, and no one knows who’s in charge of different lands, so we can bring in an expert to talk about that, and work out that difference, and alleviate any confusion. The traditional cases that you mentioned are loans. If folks are on default in a loan, they will have an opportunity to go to mediation. If there’s been discrimination, if they felt they’ve been discriminated against in not receiving a loan, they can come to Ag Mediation to talk that through. Lucy, any other?

Lucy Wess: 11:58

Yeah. There’s farm management, employee, employer. That’s an actually a really – it’s a special area – we’re special in Maine. We actually – as part of, the federal code, it allows for our state commissioner of agriculture to grant any specific areas that are bubbling up in our state. And so the management employer employee came up a few years ago. And so, yeah, that was a large number of our cases this past year.

Leslie Forstadt: 12:31

And something that people – this is Leslie – something that’s been, really helpful for people to know is that employers can initiate the engagement with the Ag Mediation Program and to have a facilitated process, but employees can do so as well. So if they’re feeling that there’s a concern, it can come from either party.

Colt Knight: 12:51

If I wanted to engage in Ag Mediation Services, do I, as one side of the argument, contact the Ag mediators, and the Ag mediators contact the second side of the argument? Or does everyone have to come to the Ag mediators to solicit services?

Lucy Wess: 13:10

It actually just depends. We really follow the lead of the person who initiates, so we say the initiating participant. We talk to them and say, you know, would you like to present this to the other people who are possibly involved, or we can reach out? Sometimes it’s a phone call, sometimes it’s an email. The idea – and you really hit on a key point – that mediation in its truest form is voluntary. You know, sometimes people are on board to come mediate. Sometimes they’re not. And there’s no judgment there. And then we just kinda shift into a different mode, and we call that conflict coaching. And so we might work with the person who initiated to try to talk about, well, how could you have this conversation, or what are possible pathways or next steps? So our staff is doing the intake. We actually have a whole other mediation roster who we call on whenever mediations – people are ready for mediation. I do kinda wanna riff off of what Leslie had talked about with the contracts and the leases. And we see equipment leases, we see land leases. If it touches agriculture and it’s a lease, we’re very happy to help. We are specifically offering, to get to that a little bit more proactive side, is, consultation and some co drafting. The idea that there are some really good templates out there, but templates are just that. They don’t have a lot of detail. And it’s the idea of, actually, everyone tends to be so excited about the new relationship that they forget about that there’s going to be conflict. And I didn’t say could. There’s going to be. There’s people. So we offer that. The idea of talking through the possibilities and details can be really important because then you’ve already talked about conflict when it wasn’t going on. And then again, you know that we’re there whenever it might bubble up again. It will. The best written contracts. There’s still a ton of gray area, and humans are humans. Right? We can agree, but things can change. Or we can just have a bad day. So that’s something I wanted to share too. That’s an area that we haven’t done a ton of work in yet, but the cool thing is both our staff and our mediators, when you see what can go wrong, it really helps you be able on the front end to ask the questions that maybe people have never thought of, or they’re just too busy in the glow of excitement, and getting a new operation going that they, you know, they don’t want to go there. They want to keep it positive. And we’ll keep it positive too, but it’s the idea of keeping it positive through clarity.

Colt Knight: 16:00

That’s a really good transition is staying positive and whatnot. Because, Leslie, something that you focus heavily on is mental health.

Leslie Forstadt: 16:11

I do. We think a lot, both in Ag Mediation and also in a number of other programs at Extension, about farmer and well-being. Both of families, of teams, how people are communicating. We do that by supporting in a bunch of different ways. We’ve got a farm coaching program, which any farmer can sign up for. And both for Ag mediation and for farm coaching, we take the broadest definition of the term farm, meaning farming of land or sea. So aqua is included in these services. And we offer coaching that really helps people get on the front end of potential conflict. So we’re anticipating, what are – how do you make decisions? We want to have conversations where you’re thinking about roles and responsibilities. We want to have conversations around goal setting, and that’s really driven by the farmer and the farm. And often, you mentioned mental health, we see stress and mental health as consistent, persistent Another person in the room is often folks that are struggling with depression or other… just struggles that interfere with their work productivity, their relationships, their capacity to communicate, and wanting to provide as much support and referral as possible. Because it’s hard to ask. It’s hard to ask for help if you’ve been working in a certain way for a really long time. How to provide support. And also, talk to the team members, talk to the family members about how to support each other, and be looking for signs and symptoms of someone who might be struggling. Talk about a lot of different things. Yeah.

Colt Knight: 18:09

Excellent. So is there anything that either of you would like to add about Ag mediation or farm mental health?

Lucy Wess: 18:19

I think a big part of mental health is financial.

Colt Knight: 18:21

Yeah. Absolutely.

Lucy Wess: 18:23

Right? It’s always there whether you’re in farming or not, but farming, right? Close margins is a term I’m hearing a lot, and I don’t doubt it. And so last year… Actually, I say last year because it was the fiscal year, but around July, we launched a pilot program for financial coaching. And this provides, again, farmers, fishers, folks working in agriculture, so you don’t have to be a farm owner even too if you’re a farm worker, to – this program is with Allison Bishop. She is a CPA and financial coach out of Portland. But it’s all via Zoom. So there’s some geographic rep there, to work with her for up to six hours. So it’s a one and a half hour session, four months. They don’t have to be consecutive, but we try to keep it within the year, and that’s going super well. Right now, most of the folks – I actually just talked to somebody the other day, and she was just effervescing, for lack of a better word, on how much she loved the financial coaching program, how valuable it’s been. They’re actually – she and her partner are about two sessions in, and then they have two more to go. And I agreed with her, because Allison is also my financial coach. Not within the ag program, but just the idea of it’s really just nice to be able to talk to somebody about, like, what are your goals? So is it the idea of developing a savings plan? Because maybe kids are going to go to college. Retirement, which is often – right? Sometimes for people, it’s the farm, but I think the idea is moving towards, obviously, the farm, but then also outside ways to support retirement and lifestyle. Once people get to that point.

Leslie Forstadt: 20:23

Although farmers never retire, there might be some sort of a plan when they start to slow down. And another sort of companion piece to that too is when – so the farm – the financial coaching with the mediation program is great with Allison because it’s really looking at numbers and looking at planning. And then they’re taking a step before that in farm coaching, we’re also looking at, like, personal values around finances. And so not looking so much at money, but looking at how you feel about what’s important, and talking with your teammates and reflecting with yourself about, you know, what kind of savings do I want to do? And we do a lot of cross referral among these programs. I mean, it can be kinda confusing. Which program should I go to? Farm code? It doesn’t matter. If you have an interest or – so, you know, if you want to come and talk to somebody that’s related to, you know, not the nontechnical business side of farming. If you want to talk about the people, the communications, the relationship, the well-being, the stress, the – any conflicts or potential conflicts that are coming down the pike. Like, we will point you where you need to go.

Lucy Wess: 21:29

I think that’s what – it makes our jobs hard, but it also makes our jobs valuable. That we want to talk to people about conflict and money, which are two things that I think oftentimes are avoided or are uncomfortable. And so we’re just trying to make that conversation as comfortable, as approachable as possible because they’re so important. And nothing worth doing is ever easy. So I think, yeah, from the feedback that I’ve been getting from Allison, who’s helping to support through farm coaching, and then right from our conversation the other day, I think people are really glad that they’ve kind of stepped out of their comfort zone. And I think that’s a human experience. Oftentimes when we do that, it’s hard. But once we do it, we’re so thankful that we did.

Colt Knight: 22:22

And if someone wanted more information about either some of the mental health aspects we offer through Extension or Ag mediation, where would they go?

Lucy Wess: 22:33

They go to our website.

Leslie Forstadt: 22:34

Go to the Extension website. You can Google the Maine Agricultural Mediation Program, which is part of Cooperative Extension. You can also look at farm coaching, which is part of Cooperative Extension. You can email Lucy or me.

Colt Knight: 22:48

And Leslie, would you like to add anything about resources?

Leslie Forstadt: 22:52

Yeah. Just coming to mind through Cultivamos, which is the Northeast Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. There’s a podcast called Cultivating Resilience that may be of interest to your listeners. There’s a few episodes out for any podcast platform that you can find. You can download it and check it out.

Colt Knight: 23:10

Alright. We’re gonna look for cultivating resilience podcast.

Leslie Forstadt: 23:14

Great stories directly from farmers.

Lucy Wess: 23:16

Come talk to us.

Colt Knight: 23:18

Lucy, Leslie, it was great to have you with us on the Maine Farmcast, and look forward to talking with you in the future.

Leslie Forstadt: 23:26

Thanks so much, Colt.

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