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Agricultural News From Washington

FSA field office fight

By Seymour Klierly

In an era of divided government between the two political parties and tighter budgets, the majority of the federal government has been asked to do more with less. Restoring fiscal responsibility is an admirable goal on both sides of the aisle, but when it comes down to the brass tacks; politicians have been working in overdrive to save federal facilities in their states and districts. Proposals ranging from closing small post offices to large scale military installation always meet tough resistance on Capitol Hill. The Department of Agriculture’s proposal to close Farm Service Agency field offices is no different.

For multiple years President Barack Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have proposed to consolidate or close up to 250 FSA offices. The president’s 2012 budget request planned to “consolidate 131 county offices in 32 states; more than 2,100 FSA offices remain throughout the United States.” Obama’s recently released budget request seeks to eliminate 250 FSA county offices and reduce 815 nonfederal staff. USDA argues that in some cases, offices have a very small staff or are no longer staffed and that many are within 20 miles of other USDA offices.

In 2012, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-SD, introduced legislation that would prohibit closing a Farm Service Agency office if farmers and ranchers would be forced to drive more than 20 miles to another office. The 2008 farm bill specifically prohibits the closure of an FSA county or field office unless it is “located less than 20 miles from another FSA office.” According to Noem, the language should specifically indicate “driving” miles instead of “as the crow flies” miles.

At an appropriations subcommittee this year hearing multiple senators relayed concerns to Vilsack that closures would be difficult especially as FSA works to implement the 2014 farm bill. “We are setting ourselves up for real explosives in rural America,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, said. Vilsack quickly replied, “We’re not going to have that.”

During a similar hearing before the House Agriculture Committee, Vilsack tried to assure the representatives that there will be adequate staff to help farmers through farm bill changes. The 2014 farm bill includes $100 million in additional resources for implementation of the law and the agency plans to use a portion of the funding to add temporary staff in FSA offices. “I don’t think there needs to be as much concern as there might be if one understands precisely what we’re doing relative to the FSA offices—no impact in 2014, temporary help in 2014,” Vilsack Said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, recently urged the Senate appropriators to block closures. “Without accessible USDA field offices, our farmers won’t have the information they need to make critical choices that will impact the sustainability of their farms. We cannot abandon these communities—keeping these offices open must be a priority,” she said in a letter. With members from both parties pushing back against the administration, there will be long fight before FSA closes any additional offices.

Editor’s note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.

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