Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux told lawmakers Thursday that he would give “due consideration” to the USDA Equity Commission's recommendation to study replacing FSA's county committee system, but he said the local panels are “integral” to the agency’s delivery of programs.

At a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, Ducheneaux said he sees the county committee system as an opportunity for producers to be a meaningful part of the process, though he noted that it’s important for the committees to be “truly representative of those who are producing.”

County committees make regional price assessments and determinations about producer eligibility, but the panels have no say in the loan approval process, he said.

“We have participated at every opportunity with the members of the Equity Commission,” Ducheneaux said. “But we have to understand that we’re working to overcome decades and generations of when that was actually the case, when county committee members did weigh in on loan applications.”

The commission last week approved a recommendation that USDA “conduct an analysis and study regarding the termination of the county committee system and design a more equitable alternative for ALL farmers.” The recommendation is part of an interim report that has not been finalized. Commission members discussed the alleged role of county committees in a drop in Black farmers — frequently by way of whether or not loans were approved — since their inception in the 1930s, but past FSA officials have also pointed to the valuable role the committees have played in the agency's work.

Ducheneaux also said during the hearing that FSA's staff positions were 95% filled as of Wednesday. “Honestly, a 5% gap isn’t that bad when you think about it,” he said.

But he said the agency still faces some challenges in retaining staff, the biggest of which is “the workload doesn’t match the compensation,” Ducheneaux said.

“We’re asking our folks to do yeoman’s work, working overtime and oftentimes the wages they receive in exchange for that time don’t match the responsibility or importance of that work,” Ducheaneaux said.

Ducheneaux said every office is open for in-person visits, though some staff remain masked in areas with community spread of COVID-19.

In response to a question from Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., Ducheneaux said the agency was looking for ways to reduce the paperwork burden of some of its programs. For instance, he said the agency was looking specifically at automating the Livestock Forage Program by tying U.S. Drought Monitor data to disaster assistance.

“We’re trying to find that balance between streamlining, but maintaining program integrity because we want to make sure we’re being good stewards of that money,” Ducheneaux said.

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