A plan to close or consolidate more than one-fourth of USDA’s county Farm Service Agency offices nationwide could be put on hold by an amendment to the fiscal 2006 agricultural appropriations bill.

The amendment, passed by voice vote during Senate deliberations on Sept. 20, would delay implementation of a plan that reportedly would shutter 665 of FSA’s current 2,353 county offices. The House must agree to the amendment before it becomes part of the 2006 ag appropriations bill.

“We already have situations where farmers have to drive 30 to 40 miles to take care of business with USDA,” said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., in remarks on the Senate floor. “If they forget something or have the wrong paperwork, they have to turn around, go back home and return, using up even more of their scarce time.

“We’ve been talking about new disaster legislation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and that will put even more demands on county FSA offices. This amendment asks USDA to hold up on any closings until we have an opportunity to study them.”

Talent offered the amendment after the Associated Press reported it had obtained a document outlining a plan to close more than one-fourth of the FSA offices, which are currently located in most of the counties in the United States.

Asked to comment on the report, J.B. Penn, undersecretary of agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, said he wasn’t familiar with the document, but that the numbers sounded “inaccurate.”

He told the AP that USDA might consolidate some functions, but that it also planned to improve service. “When you talk about closing offices, people think you’re taking something away from them. That’s not the objective — we’re going to be giving them something more.”

Last month, the Farm Service Agency announced it was offering buyouts and early outs to at least 535 employees after its efforts to secure more funding for the agency’s operations fell short.

FSA Administrator James Little said the most recent projections for FSA’s fiscal 2006 budget would result in about 850 fewer budgeted positions than authorized in 2005. While some of the reductions would come through attrition, the agency is offering buyouts or early outs to 321 county and 214 federal permanent positions.

Besides the budget shortfall, Little said the buyout and early out offers are due to “legislative changes affecting our programs, lack of needed skill sets in some areas and shifts in workload in field offices.”

While office closings were not mentioned in the Aug. 22 FSA notice on the buyouts and early outs, county office employees said rumors were circulating that they were on the table.

Closing or consolidating county offices is not a new concept. Every agriculture secretary since Earl Butz has offered some kind of plan for “modernizing” the FSA county office structure. The ensuing debate over such a plan during the Clinton administration became so heated that a moratorium was placed on any changes in FSA county locations.

When they were known as ASCS (or Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service offices), FSA offices primarily signed up farmers for farm programs and Commodity Credit Corp. loans.

In the 1990s, USDA brass folded the functions of ASCS and the Farmers Home Administration, which made farm operating and farm ownership loans, into the Farm Service Agency, co-locating their employees in single offices in each county.

Talent wasn’t the only senator expressing reservations about the proposed office closings.

Penn reportedly met with Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Robert Bennett, R-Utah, chairmen of the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, to discuss the plan. But both were non-committal.

“If the goal is to modernize the agency and to train employees for continued service improvement to the customers, the producers, then he understands that reasoning,” said Keith Williams, a spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Bennett, the floor manager for the debate on the ag appropriations committee, endorsed Talent’s amendment calling on USDA to delay implementing the closings.

Talent questioned the timing because Congress soon may be considering disaster aid legislation for farmers who have suffered losses from Hurricane Katrina, drought and other natural disasters. At least two disaster relief bills have been introduced in recent days.

“For me, the issue is service — do our producers have convenient access to FSA offices? That’s the key to me. That’s more important than any particular number of offices,” Talent said. “Now, I am concerned about closing that many offices and the impact that will have on services.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said any plan to close FSA offices must not result in reduced services to farmers, “especially with the high cost of energy already an enormous burden for our farmers and ranchers.”

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