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Published March 31, 2014, 09:36 AM

Vilsack says no FSA closures this year

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s proposal to close some Farm Service Agency offices came under attack on March 26 when he outlined his 2015 budget for the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee.

By: Jerry Hagstrom and Kim De Bourbon, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s proposal to close some Farm Service Agency offices came under attack on March 26 when he outlined his 2015 budget for the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., the subcommittee chairman, noted in his opening question that the proposed realignment of FSA offices across the country is “likely to result in quite a number of closures.”

Vilsack said that while the FSA budget “has been hit pretty hard” in the past several years, reducing the workforce by 20 percent, he is not anticipating any closures in 2014, while the agency undergoes a work-study analysis.

“Roughly 30 offices have no full-time employees today,” he told the senators. “There are 111 that have one employee and within 20 miles of another office. So I think it is time to take a look at how we restructure.”

Vilsack said he would like to see three types of FSA offices in the future: central offices with a supervisor and three or more employees, branch offices with at least three employees, but no supervisor, and satellite offices where people could obtain information by appointment.

He emphasized the restructuring effort is not about saving money, but modernizing the system, and that he would like to see the FSA offices “provide additional information above and beyond what they traditionally do.”

“Part of this modernization effort is really designed to make them a one-stop shop for farmers who are looking for information on rural development programs, how they might enter into the local regional food system opportunities, how they might take advantage of conservation programs, and have the FSA offices act as a bridge or connector with those other opportunities,” Vilsack said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., warned of potentially dire consequences for farmers with fewer FSA offices.

“If offices are closed, and there’s a tardiness … if those offices are closed and they don’t get those programs in a timely matter, we are setting ourselves up for an explosion in rural America, with the new farm bill.”

Vilsack, adamant, said “We’re not going to have that.”

Tester reiterated that USDA must “be very, very, very careful.

“These agencies are very helpful, and I would love to be able to fill out my maps and do everything at home on my kitchen table, but we’re not even close to that yet,” Tester said. “You might be, but the farmer isn’t, we’re not there.”

Timetable

Pryor asked Vilsack if there was a timetable for when the new farm bill regulations would be issued and other implementations would be in place.

Vilsack said by April 15 farmers should be able to apply for disaster assistance based on the restored programs, and that “hopefully checks will be forthcoming shortly thereafter.”

Less certain is a timetable for implementing Agricuture Revenue Coverage and Price Loss Coverage. Vilsack said farmers should be able to update their productivity and production records sometime in late summer, and then in “early fall, they should get a sense of where we are in terms of what the regulations are liable to be and the elections they have to make.

“And then we hope by the end of this year they will be in a position to make elections and be able to be informed about them.”

He acknowledged that wheat is a challenge, since growers will have to make decisions about crop insurance before they are able to make the ARC or PLC decisions. He said they will be allowed to make a change later if they’ve already signed up for supplemental coverage.

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