Extent of FSA offices closings still unknown, USDA official says

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 9, 2014 - USDA has yet to determine which of the approximately 2,500 Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices it will propose to close, agency Administrator Juan Garcia told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday.

“At this particular time, we have not made a determination as to any particular offices that will be proposed for closure,” Garcia said in response to a question from subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala.

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President Barack Obama's 2015 budget plan proposes to consolidate 250 FSA offices as part of a larger effort to modernize USDA's farm program system. Garcia said that the proposal would also cut 815 non-federal workers from the payrolls, reducing outlays by over $60 million.

Garcia said FSA was currently using a number of metrics to determine which offices to close. A 2008 farm bill provision, which is still in effect, mandates that the Agriculture Department must consider closing offices less than 20 miles away from a similar facility with two or fewer permanent, full-time employees before it can contemplate closing larger or more distant offices. Beyond that, FSA will place a priority on keeping open offices with heavy workloads - something the agency did not weight heavily when it made the last round of FSA closures after the passage of the 2008 farm bill.

“To be perfectly honest, that was unfortunate,” said Michael Scuse, USDA's undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, of the last closures. “Offices in areas that should have closed remained open. Offices are open today that should have been closed because of workload.”

Garcia said FSA would also look at the physical location of offices and how many main and sub-offices surround them. Officials also agreed that closure decisions needed to take producers' opinions into account.

“You're exactly right: We need to include states, [FSA state executive directors], and [district directors], as well as the customers and clients in the states that we're serving,” Scuse said in response to questioning by Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss.

“If you continue to move in that direction, I think you'll get a lot of cooperation (from the farming community)” Nunnelee said.

Either way, officials stressed, the closures will not happen immediately. Echoing comments made by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Capitol Hill last week, Scuse said would FSA would maintain its staffing levels - partly to implement the 2014 farm bill - through the end of the fiscal year, which concludes in September.

Over the next three years, USDA will also work to implement what it calls the “model service-center concept,” through which the department is hoping to streamline and modernize their field offices. Scuse said FSA is reorganizing into three tiers. Central offices will house FSA management and the bulk of agency staff; sub-offices will have fewer employees; and satellite offices will operate with even more limited staffing and hours. 

The USDA official said producers would eventually be able to learn about all USDA farm programs at FSA offices. An improved IT system will also allow farmers to file some of their paperwork from the web, obviating the need for regular truck rides to distant field offices.

Still, almost all lawmakers who attended the hearing - including Subcommittee Ranking Member Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Reps. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Ga., and David Valadao, R-Calif., expressed some concern over the administration's plan to close FSA offices.

The Senate side has also criticized the budget proposal. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said last month that farmers “should not have to make such a long haul” to visit FSA offices.

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