A grassroots approach: Farmers and ranchers are local decision makers for Farm Service Agency
ELGIN, N.D. — Amid the planting and harvesting, calving and feeding and other tasks that farmers and ranchers across the country complete, another task is on the list for many producers: providing a grassroots voice to the Farm Service Agency.
FSA, the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers farm programs, can seem like a bureaucratic government entity, placing demands and requirements on farmers across the country from its main office in Washington, D.C. What many people don't realize is that local farmers and ranchers make many of the decisions for FSA.
The decision makers are people like Joel Klein of Grant County, N.D., Robert Schmidt of Oliver County, N.D., and about 7,700 other farmers and ranchers across the country. They serve, Klein explains, as the "boots in the field," making sure the FSA policies work for the county and that the producers in the county are following the policies.
"A lot of people believe that the FSA, the county executive director, because I'm sitting here signing a lot of the documents that are going out there, the letters that are going out to them, they believe that I'm the one making a lot of decisions, when in reality it's your three local members of the community, ag producers within your own community, making a lot of decisions for our programs and our appeals system," says Justin Mosset, FSA county executive director for Grant County.
Every county has its own county committee — a three- to 11-member panel of farmers or ranchers. FSA county committees serve as the local representation for farmers and ranchers, making sure that programs are administered by policy and also in a way appropriate for the area. Each member comes from a local administrative area, somewhat of a district to make sure all parts of the county are represented.
Mosset says the county committees help ensure that FSA does not function as an out-of-touch bureaucracy but instead relies on local knowledge.
"We definitely want some type of grassroots input," says Brad Thykeson, state FSA executive director for North Dakota.
When Klein finished college at Dickinson State University in 2006, he worked as a custom applicator for Southwest Grain for four or five years, followed by a few years as an ag loan officer at American Bank Center in Dickinson, N.D. When his uncle decided to retire in 2013, Klein returned to the family farm to work with his father. The Kleins farm about 8,000 acres of wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers and canola. They also run about 200 cow-calf pairs and background their calves to about 700 pounds.
Klein said his years as a custom applicator increased his ag knowledge and working in the bank got him more accustomed to the big numbers that can come with running a farm. So he felt prepared when he joined the family operation.
When he was getting signed up for FSA programs, office staff at the county USDA Service Center in Carson, N.D., asked whether Klein would be interested in serving on the county committee. He agreed to run and has been on the county committee for Grant County ever since.
He had worked with the lending side of FSA during his banking days and was fairly knowledgeable about other FSA programs. But serving on the committee expanded his knowledge.
"I learned a lot more of it as I got onto the committee," he says.
Robert Schmidt, who ranches in Oliver County north of Mandan, N.D., got involved in the county committee in a similar way, with office staff asking if he'd be interested. Schmidt runs a cow-calf operation with a backgrounding feedlot. His interest in ag policy made serving on the committee appealing.
Mosset says getting people to agree to serve on a county committee can be difficult. Last year, one member decided not to run again, and he found himself calling producer after producer in the local administrative area until he found someone to run.
"A lot of times you get a no, so you go through a lot of people before you find one," Mosset says.
Doing the work
Serving on the county committee, Klein says, is not a difficult task. He budgets about three hours every other month for meetings on average. During busier times, the committee may meet every month. He says meetings often are moved to rainy days or days when committee members can more easily slip away for a few hours.
"It's not a high-maintenance board," Klein says.
Meetings are open to the public, though the committee will go into executive session during most meetings when discussing individual farmers or ranchers. While it's not a high-paying position — at $15 an hour — it's also not a strictly volunteer one.
The county executive director brings the policy information to the committee, and the committee makes decisions off of that. The committees work on appeals, consumer price supports, conservation programs, disaster programs, sharing information about FSA in the community, some loan programs and hiring county executive directors.
"We administer policy. We really don't set policy. We just administer the rules that are set forth by the farm bill," Schmidt explains.
Committees handle different tasks, depending on the agriculture and geography in their area. In some areas, county committees hear appeals of wetlands violations, Mosset says.
In Grant County, the Livestock Indemnity Program, which provides benefits to livestock producers for livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by adverse weather, often takes up a lot of the committee's time in the winter months. Producers have to bring in their records proving that they lost animals to a qualified weather event. Klein says FSA office staff keeps track of storms that affect the county so that the committee has some reference points for whether a particular storm qualifies for the program. The committee decides to approve or deny coverage.
Denials, Klein says, often come done to inadequate records proving deaths. The committee alone can decide whether to accept documentation.
"That's our responsibility. That really doesn't fall in something the office staff can do," Klein says.
From the experience, Klein has learned to improve his own record keeping — just one of the lessons he's learned from observing other operations and from learning more about FSA regulations and programs.
County committees have to certify yields for FSA programs. Klein says that can be "monotonous" but serves the purpose of making sure producers are entitled to the payments they receive and to protect against people making up false yields. Occasionally the committees, with help from office staff, will find a reported yield that is out of the normal parameters. Most of the time, it's a simple error, Schmidt and Klein say.
"If somebody comes in with a wild yield we will question them on it," Schmidt says. "Maybe they're honest mistakes ... counted a grain bin twice or something."
Having the local perspective on yields and weather and other operational differences are important because FSA staff sometimes does not come from the local area. Mosset, for example, farms in Linton, N.D., across the river and many miles from Grant County. Though he's learned a lot in his 11 years there, Mosset says the input and knowledge of his county committee members still are vital.
Klein and Schmidt say producers should be open to participating in county committees.
"It's not a difficult job. If you're interested in policy, it's something that would interest people," Schmidt says.
Thykeson says the mechanism of a county committee, in which a farmer or rancher has other farmers and ranchers within the system to act as advocates, gives producers a chance to get their concerns and questions passed along all the way to Washington, D.C. Participating allows them to learn more and grow.
"Participating is a great way to educate yourself on the farm programs," Thykeson says. "Anytime we can expand our education circle and our outreach to our community and to the people we surround ourselves with, I think it's a great opportunity."
The FSA county committee election process
June 14, 2019: The beginning of the next nomination period. Request nomination forms from your local U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center or downnload them from https://www.fsa.usda.gov/news-room/county-committee-elections/index.
Aug. 1, 2019: The last day to file nomination forms at the local USDA Service Center.
Nov. 4, 2019: Ballots are mailed to eligible voters.
Dec. 2, 2019: The last day to return ballots to the USDA Service Center.
Jan. 1, 2020: Newly elected county committee members take office.