Closing FSA county offices can be a political mine field

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, January 11, 2012 -The Farm Service Agency's office in Campbell County, S.D., may boast the most colorful history of the 131 local offices to be closed or merged this year in USDA's belt-tightening exercise. It also illuminates the story of the political pitfalls of closing local offices.

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Half a century ago, farmers and townspeople in Mound City, the county seat with a population of 144, locked and barricaded the office of FSA's precursor, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, to try to prevent USDA from moving it eight miles away to Herreid, the county's commercial hub with a population of 633. The standoff gained national attention.

The motivation was more than civic pride; leaders of the blockade included owners of the building where USDA had leased an office. Beginning with the late Earl Butz, every secretary of agriculture has tried, with limited success, to close or consolidate county-level offices that handle farm and conservation programs and rural and community development loans and grants. And each attempt has been frustrated, at least in part, by opposition from the offices landlords.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, speaking to reporters in Honolulu this week at the Farm Bureau annual meeting, alluded to the challenge: “There are leases, lots of complications involved with all of this,” he said. But he added that most leases give the government an out. “We do not necessarily have to wait out the entire length” of the lease, he said.

Vilsack also may encounter less congressional opposition because he is guided by 2008 farm bill language that allows FSA to close or consolidate offices with two or fewer employees after public hearings in the area. The hearings provide an opportunity to reassure people that service won't be affected, he said. “They may have to drive five or ten extra miles, but they will see the same people behind the counter. I don't anticipate a lot of pushback when we show them the numbers.” The closings also come in “a little different context, because of a year of constant talk about the budget,” Vilsack said. He's already notified leaders and affected members of Congress.



Original story printed in January 11, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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