WASHINGTON, January 18, 2012 -After Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced field office closings as part of USDA’s new “Blueprint for Stronger Service at USDA” last week, we heard from USDA employees who questioned whether this could really be described as a “new” effort. We heard from many who had been involved with trying to downsize USDA field offices ‑ long a fixture in our nation’s roughly 2,000 rural counties.

More than one USDA employee offered little sympathy for Farm Service Agency (FSA) county officials, who told Agri-Pulse they would bear the brunt of the field office changes. The 2008 Farm Bill had prohibited FSA from making cuts for two years, while others mission areas moved forward with the sometimes painful process.

“Probably the one surprise that we’re finding as we sort through this is that it appears FSA offices are being targeted but some of our sister agencies don’t seem to have been subjected to the same process,” noted John Lohr, president of the National Association of County Office Employees (NASCOE) in an Agri-Pulse interview last week.

But while FSA will be called on to consolidate 131 Farm Service Agency (FSA) county offices in 32 states under the new “Blueprint,” the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), closed more than 370 offices last year after Congress zeroed out the RC&D funding for FY11. USDA Rural Development, which had 788 offices at the end of fiscal 2002 and had already closed 155 offices by early 2009, has had dozens more offices cited for closure since then.

As we pointed out last week: Beginning with the late Earl Butz, every secretary of agriculture has tried, with limited success, to close or consolidate county-level USDA offices. But why Sec. Vilsack didn’t mention previous office closings under his watch remains somewhat of a mystery. 

Asked to explain, a USDA spokesperson said that offices have closed in the past due to reductions in appropriations as well as USDA agencies consolidating services, improving electronic customer service and better positioning operations and services.

“What sets the Blueprint for Stronger Service apart from past efforts is its thoughtful, strategic and balanced approach to manage budget challenges and staffing reductions throughout important USDA programs. The changes announced last week by Secretary Vilsack provide USDA with the flexibility to strategically manage our current as well as any future budget challenges,” the spokesman offered.

Others USDA employees suggested that, with President Obama's recent announcement about reorganizing the commerce/trade agencies, the blueprint” may just be part of the White House effort to appear to be responsible fiscal managers ahead of the election.

“The reality is that closing offices is difficult and time-consuming and it is very hard to close offices this late in any Administration,” explained a USDA source who had worked on office closings.



Original story printed in January 18, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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