Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says he’s “opening a dialogue” with state and congressional leaders to determine how best to “modernize the Farm Service Agency to ensure it meets the needs of farmers and ranchers in the 21st Century.”

That’s a nice way of putting that Johanns is about to engage in what’s almost become a rite of passage for agriculture secretaries: Proposing to reduce the number of county FSA offices by one-fourth or one-third or whatever amount the powers that be have decided is politically palatable.

Johanns did not give a number in the press release USDA issued on Sept. 28, but earlier reports said FSA is planning to close 665 or about 28 percent of its 2,351 county offices nationwide.

Rather than spelling out reductions, the release said state FSA directors were working with farmers and local, state and congressional leaders to develop proposals that will “help us chart the course for the agency’s future.”

“My hope is that we can agree on a plan that will make it possible to invest in equipment, technology and our employees,” said Johanns. “We want to ensure that top-notch service is provided to our farmers and ranchers long into the futures.”

Those conversations must just be getting started because two Democratic congressmen, Ike Shelton of Missouri and Marion Berry of Arkansas, complained that they had received little information about plans to “downsize” USDA.

Dotson Collins, state FSA director for Arkansas, said he’s been told he must close or consolidate 22 of his state’s 62 FSA offices.

Johanns reeled off some interesting numbers to justify the prospective round of closings. More than 400 of FSA’s 2,351 offices now have two or fewer full-time staff. Nearly 500 offices are within 20 miles of the next nearest office. The cost of delivering services in each office varies from 1 cent per $1 to $2 per $1 of benefits.

Some offices may also be located in counties that have very little agriculture or the types of agriculture that involve little participation in USDA’s commodity, disaster, farm loan or conservation programs.

Johanns’ nice words about modernizing FSA might be given more credence if the administration hadn’t already shown a propensity toward drastic cuts in agricultural spending. Last February, President Bush proposed reducing farm programs by $9 billion and his subordinates have tried to block new ag disaster and conservation funding.

Congressional Republicans have also begun floating a plan for cutting farm program payments to help pay for the cost of rebuilding the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Among the possibilities: (1) freezing the 2007 federal budget for one or two years and (2) dropping the acreage eligible for farm payments from 85 percent to 84 percent.

If you’re a fiscal conservative who believes government should be downsized, you probably think those proposals are good ideas. If those payments could make the difference in whether you farm next year, you probably won’t.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com