OMAHA (DTN) — A group representing local Farm Service Agency committees is opposing a proposal that could eliminate as many as 250 FSA offices nationally through consolidation.
The National Association of FSA Elected Committees (NAFEC) wrote a letter this week to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declaring the group's opposition to any office closures or any staffing reductions at county offices. Craig Turner, president of NAFEC, said county offices are going to be needed more than ever to implement the new farm bill. Turner and other members of the executive committee for NAFEC encouraged farmers to talk to their congressmen about the possible FSA closures.
“What upsets me is the county committee — the county office employees — are what is always cut,” said Turner, a farmer near Matador, Texas. “We're trying to implement a new farm bill and everything that goes with that … I don't feel like this is the time to cut us any more when there may be other places that we feel like have not been cut yet. It's very important for us to be able to get this farm program out on the ground as fast as we can.”
The county office employees are governed by those local committees. Other FSA employees report to the regional offices or national USDA headquarters.
“The CO (county office) side is the only side that has any local control in the federal government,” Turner said. “To me, there's nothing better to regulate it because we know what's going on.”
NEFAC, in a statement, wrote that farmers in some rural areas don't have broadband access to rely on websites such as eGov and Midas programs for enrolling in USDA programs or updating farm information. That means farmers then need to travel to their county offices for program information and assistance.
Turner said he is heading to Washington, D.C., next week and has meetings set up with several FSA and Risk Management administrators. He hopes to get a chance to meet with Vilsack as well.
Vilsack is set to testify before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture to explain the White House budget proposal. Vilsack is expected to face sharp questions over several issues, including possible changes to USDA inspection rules for poultry processors. But the administration also could see pushback from lawmakers about its FSA proposal.
The budget proposal from the White House states USDA would “modernize the farm program delivery system through a model service center concept.” To boost the modernization efforts, USDA would consolidate county Farm Service Agency offices, reducing the current 2,100 county offices by about 250. Talking to reporters last week, Vilsack noted 31 FSA offices have no full-time employees. Those offices could be eliminated along with other offices that have only one or two employees but are within 20 miles of larger USDA service centers.
Cutting offices can create parochial responses. Mike Espy, who was ag secretary from 1993-94, recalled at the USDA Outlook Forum in 2012 that he was called into a senator's office when the Clinton administration proposed eliminating an FSA office where the senator's cousin worked. Espy noted he was pretty sure that office remained open. Two years ago, the Obama administration also proposed eliminating FSA offices. At the time, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., vehemently complained at a Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting about FSA office closures, holding up a map of Arkansas and debating whether offices in his state selected for cuts were factored using road miles or straight lines. Pryor now chairs that appropriations subcommittee.
House members also have introduced legislation in the past to block office closures.
Cutting FSA offices is “very tough sledding,” Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said in a phone interview Thursday. The George W. Bush administration proposed to cut more than 700 offices nationally when Johanns was agriculture secretary before that plan was scrapped due to congressional backlash.
Johanns said every recent ag secretary has recognized the need to improve efficiency and services at local FSA offices.
“We want them to be efficient, we want them to have the most up-to-date computer systems, be there to help farmers, answer questions,” he said. “But what we have ended up in many places is we have one employee, we have outdated equipment, we have some places where we don't have a full-time employee in the office. So at the end of the day, every (ag) secretary has looked at this and said 'This is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem.'”
Johanns noted Vilsack was governor of Iowa when the Bush administration made its proposal. Vilsack traveled to a county in north-central Iowa to express his opposition to that proposal.
“That's the community I grew up in, Mitchell County, Iowa, and that was one of the offices that was targeted,” Johanns said.
Johanns said he had some success at overhauling FSA and expects that Vilsack will have some success as well. Nonetheless, such cuts remain controversial in the country and in Congress. Johanns said the debate about local FSA offices will linger on well into future administrations as well.
“At the end of the day, if you are really going to upgrade what these offices can offer, then you need to come to grips with the fact that some of these offices are really kind of shells,” Johanns said. “They aren't offering the kind of services that farmers really need to deal with the very complex ag programs that we have today.”
by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor
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