During a House Ag Committee hearing to review rural affairs Thursday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack assured Representatives that proposed closures of Farm Service Agency offices as outlined in the farm bill would not take effect in 2014.
The proposed future closures are in keeping with efforts to realign funding priorities, Vilsack said, not because of budget constraints. Currently, he estimated there are between 130-145 offices that have zero or only one full-time employee – something that be changed for greater efficiency.
"We believe that there is an opportunity for us to take this year and look at where the work is actually being done and essentially reorganize and restructure the FSA system so that the people are where the work is," Vilsack said.
He envisions a three-tiered system, creating central offices with supervisory personnel, branch offices with more employees and satellite offices were farmers can set up appointments to meet face-to-face.
Technology will streamline operations
Vilsack said technology may make it possible to interact with farmers and provide needed information without having to visit a physical office.
"We're hopeful that within the next year to two, many of our producers won't even have to access FSA offices, but if they do they will be able to access all of their records in all of the counties where they may have land in a single office," Vilsack said. "That's going to change significantly the way in which FSA offices operate."
Additionally, Vilsack said USDA is attempting to make FSA offices a "one-stop-shop" for information regarding USDA programs and services, not just FSA offerings.
"We want them to be a greater guide and greater counselor to producers," Vilsack explained.
Despite the streamlining that may be afforded under the plan, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., raised concerns that the closure of FSA offices may impact often co-housed Natural Resources Conservation Offices.
Noem also suggested that the USDA would need to address laws that say FSA offices be no more than 20 miles apart. Currently, she said, USDA is interpreting the 20-mile distance "as the crow flies," rather than road miles.
Vilsack earlier in March suggested to a Senate Committee that offices affected are likely those within 20 miles of another office.
Staffing in 2014
Vilsack assured Representatives that just because the USDA is planning changes for 2015, there will be adequate staff to help farmers through farm bill changes.
In fact, Vilsack said, the agency plans to use some of the $100 million in additional resources the farm bill laid out for implementation to ramp up temporary staff support 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."