The closing of 259 USDA offices must be put into “the proper context,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a Tuesday morning press conference.

Speaking from Hawaii, where he’d announced the closings at the annual American Farm Bureau Federation meeting on Monday, Vilsack said the steps were taken “as a response to the fact the operating budget for USDA was cut by $3 billion between 2010 and 2012. In order to deal with that cut, we had to take a look at specifically Congress’ direction in terms of our salaries and expense item – the item that funds personnel and operating expenses of all the mission areas with the exception of the Forest Service.”

For more, including many links related to the closings, see here.

Congress has reduced the USDA salaries and expenses line item “between 9 and 18 percent. That resulted in having to make some serious decisions.”

Two paths could have been taken, said Vilsack. One option was to create “a comprehensive approach – looking at efficiencies, travel, conferences, supply purchases, personnel and retirement opportunities, process improvement and our physical footprint around the world.” The second option was to do “what is normally done, which is to furlough or reduce the number of USDA employees by laying off the most recently hired.”

Option one was chosen because lay-offs would have caused “a massive disruption in service to the people we care about.”     

Vilsack also pointed out that not only has the USDA’s operating budget been slashed but so have program budgets. “We reduced … the amount of money being paid to crop insurance companies and saved $4 billion towards deficit reduction. We’ve also seen conservation (program) reductions in terms of how much Congress has allocated. We anticipate further program cuts as Congress debates and discusses the farm bill.”  

Vilsack insisted that despite the closings and consolidation “all the work being at USDA will continue to be done. It will just be transferred to a different location.”

Reports that food safety inspections would suffer due to the USDA cuts are incorrect, said Vilsack. Office closings in the food safety area “are about administrative personnel, not inspectors. We did not deal with inspectors at all. They will still be in every single plant … and (the closings) will have no impact whatsoever on our responsibility to ensure the safety of the food supply.”

Vilsack refused to “preempt” the White House budget requests for 2013 because “I don’t know if decisions have been finalized.” However, if deeper cuts are coming, the USDA plan takes that “into consideration … and gives us the flexibility, we believe, to respond to what may occur.”

Queried on the reluctance of lawmakers to allow USDA office closings in the past, Vilsack said the current effort is different. “In this particular circumstance … we need to get our financial house in order. That requires tough choices and calls.”

On Monday, Vilsack said he did not “anticipate a significant amount of pushback” to the planned closures. That anticipation may prove faulty, though, as complaints have begun about the lack of input from the agricultural sector prior to Vilsack’s announcement.

However, the National Farmers Union has put much of the blame for the closings on Congress. “It should come as no surprise that FSA and other USDA service and research facilities are closing because of the continued emphasis on spending reduction,” said Chandler Goule, NFU Vice President of Government Relations in a statement. “A ‘cut first, ask questions later’ attitude in Congress toward investing in agriculture and rural America is now showing its true cost to farmers, ranchers and rural citizens with these closures. Agriculture cannot be continually asked to do more than its fair share to resolve our nation’s deficit problems – our leaders must look elsewhere to find solutions.”

Goule said the USDA has “made great strides toward streamlining and economizing the department’s operations. Since 2010, Congress has cut USDA’s discretionary spending levels by about 12 percent, and USDA has done its best to prevent those reductions from affecting the quality of service that farmers and ranchers have come to expect. With the latest spending reductions, it was not possible to avoid painful cuts that will harm farmers and ranchers across the country.”

Law requires that the closing of FSA offices – each within 20 miles of an FSA office that will remain open -- must begin with a public hearing “in each county impacted by this decision,” said Vilsack. “Those hearings will take place within 90 days.” The closings are expected to be done by July.

As for other agencies – including Food and Nutrition Services, NRCS and APHIS – office closings should take place by the end of the fiscal year in September.