WASHINGTON, March 27, 2014 – Several senators expressed concern Wednesday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over USDA’s proposal to close about 250 Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices as part of its fiscal year 2015 budget request.
During a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., asked Vilsack for details on the FSA proposal. “And we don’t know where [the closures] would be,” Pryor said.
Vilsack told senators the plan is to institute technological improvements that would increase FSA productivity and expand the agency’s ability to provide more information than it already does. He said no FSA offices will be closed this year while USDA conducts a study to determine “where the work actually is and where the farm families are” in making closure decisions.
Vilsack stressed that the FSA budget “has been hit pretty hard over the past few years” resulting in a 20 percent reduction in the FSA workforce. The secretary said 30 FSA offices have no full-time employees and 111 offices have one full-time employee in locations within 20 miles of each other.
“I would point out that this is not about saving money,” Vilsack said. “It’s about redirecting resources and shoring up the system and modernizing the system.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told Vilsack that USDA needs to “be very, very careful about closures” of FSA offices.
Tester said he was worried that rural farmers would lose access to FSA services in the wake of closures, and the upcoming wave of new regulations from the farm bill could result in “an explosion in rural America.” Most farmers are not ready to participate in FSA services “at their kitchen table,” he said.
“You need to make sure there is support to take care of these folks,” Tester said. “These are the folks that determine whether that like you or not.”
Tester also was skeptical of Vilsack’s comments about modernizing the system. “The modernizing language has been around for 20 years and it hasn’t happened,” he said.
Subcommittee ranking member Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said USDA needs to focus on making FSA offices more efficient and productive. “We need a real analysis of where the work is, where the farm families are and how we bring those together,” Blunt said.
The administration’s $3.9 trillion FY 2015 budget proposal to fund government departments would provide $23.7 billion in discretionary spending for USDA for a decrease of about $938 million from the 2014 enacted level. A summary of the USDA portion of the bill can be viewed here.
While the subcommittee focused heavily on FSA, a few other topics arose during the relatively short one-hour hearing.
“Agriculture is one of the brightest spots in our economy right now,” Blunt said. “But there are challenges. World food needs are anticipated to double by 2060, and American farmers will be an important part of that.”
Blunt stressed the importance of agriculture research, and also thanked Vilsack for making implementation of the livestock disaster relief program a top priority.
Vilsack said he expects to have the livestock assistance program set up to allow producers to apply after April 15 and then “hopefully checks will be forthcoming shortly thereafter.” He said he could not predict when producers would begin receiving checks because USDA is not sure how many applications to expect.
As part of the overall implementation of the farm bill, Vilsack said farmers should have a sense of what the new regulations will be in early fall. He further told senators that the department plans to hold listening sessions as part of an “extensive” outreach effort to educate farmers on the regulations. Vilsack said, “There are 480 steps to [implement regulations] for the 900-page bill and we have prioritized it.”