Released in mid-January in an attempt to increase government efficiency and save $150 million annually, the USDA’s “Blueprint for Stronger Service” would shutter 259 offices under its broad umbrella. Of the proposed 259 closings, 131 are operated by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), an agency critical to those in agriculture wanting to sign up for government programs.

Shortly after floating his budget-cutting plan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the proposal was“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.”

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

For more, see here and here.

One of those “serious” decisions was the closing and consolidation of the 131 FSA offices, which the Obama administration wants to be done by mid-summer following required public hearings.

Vilsack said that “in making the decision to close an office, FSA relied on the 2008 farm bill criteria for determining what offices would be considered. Of the 131 offices on the list, 35 currently have no employees — the balance of the offices have either one or two employees and are within 20 miles of another FSA office. The work of these offices will be assigned to the adjoining county office, and personnel given the opportunity to transfer as well.”

While acknowledging the difficulties facing Vilsack during the 2008 farm bill-mandated review of USDA, the National Association of FSA County Office Employees (NASCOE)says the consequences of so many FSA office closings should be considered before final action. In a letter (see here) to Congress on the proposed closings, NASCOE hit on four key concerns:

  • Lack of stakeholder input in the “Blueprint for Stronger Service” plan.
  • The need for a “top/down review” of USDA’s budget. This includes a serious review of potential savings from the Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, state, and district offices.
  • FSA is proportionally closing a significantly larger number of offices when compared to its sister agencies.
  • Producers still rely heavily on the staff in these FSA offices to assist with increasingly complex programs available to farmers and ranchers.

In an interview with Farm Press shortly after the letter’s release, NASCOE president John Lohr – a Pennsylvania-based FSA employee for 35 years -- expanded on the group’s worries and what the agency has faced due to cuts over the last decade. Among his comments:

On the true savings, FSA staff reductions and their impact…

“The savings, as far as county FSA offices, will be relatively minor when considering how many of them have no people, and are relatively small spaces. It’s also late in the fiscal year and we feel there could be more savings from a top-down approach that could translate into filling some of the holes in some FSA offices.”

Over the past few years the FSA “reduced staff through buy-outs to encourage staff to retire. We appreciate that as an employee association – it provided a soft landing for those leaving. But towards the end of 2011, not quite one-eighth of our staff across FSA, including county offices” had left.

“That caused a lot of holes in some FSA offices and in some locations means severe understaffing.” Vilsack’s proposal “won’t help much with that.

“We need people, we need some dollars, and we need to right-size this and get employees where the work needs to be done. That’s NASCOE’s main concern here: the big picture. The overarching summary is why we feel a need to speak up a bit about what’s going on.”

On a timeline to shut down the FSA offices…

“We operate on a fiscal year basis (that begins in November) and it’s now January. A public meeting process that Secretary (Vilsack) is required to go through” to close the FSA offices will mean “more time to make final decisions. We’re months away from the final decisions.

“Then, there are leases that have to be broken. Usually, there are clauses in them that allow that to happen -- but some take 90 to 120 days. Do the math and we’ll be well into the fiscal year” before the closings could occur.

“There will be very few savings in 2012 from the brick-and-mortar move.”

Were the proposed cuts to FSA more drastic than expected?

They aren’t more drastic than we expected as far as office (closings). … They could have been, I suppose, much more drastic.

“We knew through the (Obama) administration that this was being considered. It has been on Secretary Vilsack’s desk since (last) fall. He’s been considering how to move forward and proceed.”

On the FSA offices with no employees…

“My first reaction – yours too, probably – to (such instances) is ‘those offices are ones that should close.’ But there are cases where FSA is renting a room, maybe in an NRCS service center. An FSA employee based in another office staffs the (room) and serves the area farmers so they don’t have to commute. We’re spending very little in those situations.

“In other cases – and I was made aware of one over the weekend – there are FSA offices less than 20 miles apart (one of the criteria cited by Vilsack to shut an FSA office). But, literally, you go over the river and through the woods between the two – an awful drive.

“We wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have had the stakeholders look at the (proposed closings) before a list was prepared rather than defend (the closings) afterward. We very much understand the need to look for cost-savings and efficiencies wherever we can.”

On FSA offices shrinking for a decade, or more…

“Yes, there has been downsizing and reducing staff numbers, although not this dramatic.”

Prior efforts “didn’t necessarily require the extra incentives to have (FSA employees leave) but let attrition reduce the numbers.

“But the numbers have dropped. It wasn’t too many years ago that (there were) over 10,000 county office employees. We’ve dropped to under 8,000 – or in that ballpark.

“Unfortunately, (Vilsack’s) hands are somewhat tied because of the farm bill language that (dictates) what he needs to look at. That’s why we’re in this process. He has to look at the (FSA offices) that are under 20 miles (apart) and with fewer than two employees. He’s required to do that until the farm bill expires in September of this year.”

On out-of-date FSA computer equipment and increasingly complex government programs…

“Getting FSA computers updated has been a long-term problem. But we’re actually near a solution.”

While the technology won’t be available to producers coast-to-coast, “there is a modernization initiative called ‘MIDAS’ (Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems) within FSA. It’s about ready to be rolled out.

“We expect that later this year, we’ll have programs on that system. By early 2013, pretty much all our programs will be rolled over to the MIDAS project, which uses a state-of-the-art software package. It’s much more easily programmed than what we’ve dealt with in the past. Fortunately, the funding is still in place to do that.”

Looking to the future…

“We stand ready to help deliver whatever farm programs or the Secretary of Agriculture sends our way. Our track record speaks for itself in delivering programs over the years.”