ND state FSA ‘teleworking’ things out
The North Dakota Farm Service Agency works online to meet farm program needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, when offices go to skeleton crews for social distance safety.
FARGO, N.D. — Normally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency offices would be abuzz with activity, as farmers work to complete paperwork ahead of spring planting.
The state office in Fargo typically would have 25 workers, but the agency has three cars in the lot because of “social distancing” efforts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state office has been quarantined since March 19. They hired professional cleaners and on March 30, started allowing two or three people in at a time.
“We rotate people in so people can access hard copy files, do some printing and kind of get their jobs done that they can’t do at their home locations, ” says Brad Thykeson, executive director for the Farm Service Agency in North Dakota.
Thykeson has spent more time at his farm near Portland, N.D., about 60 miles northwest of Fargo, N.D.
“There’s no script for this, no training,” Thykeson says.
The FSA is delivering programs at a time when farmers are experiencing low commodity prices, a terrible fall harvest. “Any time we can make some assistance and take a little bit of stress off that producer, that’s what we’re here for.”
The new norm
One challenge is to get producers to “cultivate a new avenue of getting that application signed, and getting that information into the employee.”
Thykeson helps his sons farm besides doing this job. “We were doing our operating loan renewal papers,” he says. Thykeson acknowledges it’s not always easy. “We had to do the ‘e-doc’ sign-in. I got kind of confused on the web page, and all of a sudden I was trying to put an app on a phone. It wasn’t that hard but it’s very confusing to someone who hasn’t done it before.”
People in their 20s and 30s will adapt quickly, he says, and — just as with the 9-11 disaster in 2001 — America adapts. The pandemic episode will change the way Americans do business. “How we do business, where we do business, how many people you need in an office,” he says.
The situation highlights the importance of adequate upload and download capacity for broadband internet access. “Broadband is going to be moved up in importance," he says, similar to the emphasis on electricity in the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration.
The state FSA has nearly 300 workers across the state’s 51 offices across 53 counties. After an initial hiring freeze when Thykeson took office, the state has added about 18 FSA staffers, with a few more still coming. There is a “maturity” issue, with Baby boomers who started work in the 1980s retiring. “We’re trying to on-board (new) people, which is a clumsy process during this coronavirus era that we’re in,” he says.
The COVID-19 issue had an early effect on March 1, when four North Dakota state FSA officials attended a national training in Kansas City. Unbeknownst to meeting organizers, an employee from another state attended the meeting. “We had to quarantine four offices in North Dakota, but the good news is that person tested negative” so no offices went without employees.
“We are limiting our hours due to social distancing, but we are up and running for business,” he says.
One of the state staff pointed out that if the COVID-19 pandemic countermoves had happened three to five years ago, “our hands would have been tied pretty hard.” Today, key employees at the state and county offices have laptop computers so they’re able to work from home, with a relaxation of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) rules because of the emergency.
March 16 was the deadline for farmers to come in and sign up for Agricultural Risk Coverage/Price Loss Coverage programs for producers to sign up for either revenue insurance or price insurance for crops in 2019 and 2020. They continue with a “very small register,” where some of the work is yet to complete.
On Feb. 28, they finished a Conservation Reserve Program signup in which about 90% of offers were accepted, putting 120,000 acres into the CRP in 2020.
The agency is also having a grassland CRP program, where cattlemen can receive a reduced CRP rate but can graze cattle on it. A Soil Health Income Protection Program (SHIPP) is available in a five-state region, on low income-producing land, on a three- to five-year period.
They are starting to process Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (“WHIP+”) payments, passed a year ago. Farmers can submit Risk Management Agency data proving excessive moisture and drought, using correspondence through a phone call or e-mail.
Meanwhile, the FSA’s loan department is in the middle of the renewal season, amid a time of financial difficulties.
“We see some equity slipping out in rural America,” Thykeson says. Some loan deadlines will be relaxed, because of the interruption. Loan guarantees and even some direct loans are not always easy to get completed, during times like these.
The 2019 crop and cattle profitability weren’t good, so farmers are under a cash stress, with Thykeson seeing an “uptick” in demand for loan guarantees and loan subordinations going on. With low interest rates, Thykeson says demand has "skyrocketed” for farmland loans, as some landowners sell parcels of land to generate cash.
“The trouble is Mother Nature seems like she keeps marching on here. Spring is knocking at the door. These producers don’t want to be sitting behind their computers, trying to e-mail or e-doc something” when farming activities need to be done, Thykeson says.
Looking ahead, Thykeson acknowledges the task ahead with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act activity that may be coming. USDA’s sister agencies — Rural Development and the Natural Resources Conservation Service — will have roles, but he expects an “FSA lift” to be in the works too.
“We have the most offices,” Thykeson says, among federal agencies, and then adds, with a sense of humor. “We used to call it the most contact with producers,” but he says the virus has equalized that field a bit.