WELTE: Is FSA fulfilling its mission?
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the mission of the Farm Service Agency is "equitably serving all farmers, ranchers and agricultural partners through the delivery of effective, efficient agricultural programs ...
GRAND FORKS, N.D. - According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the mission of the Farm Service Agency is "equitably serving all farmers, ranchers and agricultural partners through the delivery of effective, efficient agricultural programs for all Americans." And the foundation of FSA's mission and vision rests upon "USDA's long-standing core values of strong ethics, customer service, teamwork, inclusive decision making and fiscal responsibility."
Consider the following experience on my farm, see if you believe the FSA fulfilled their mission, and if they held up their "long-standing core values."
Perpendicular to the county road one mile south of our farm, we have a grass waterway running through a field. To prevent erosion, about a decade ago we planted two five acre strips of Conservation Reserve Program alongside the grass waterway. These two strips are not a moneymaker - the payment might be $600 annually - but my parents and I felt better about the erosion along the waterway, and it provides for wonderful flora and fauna.
We received a letter in June from FSA advising us that it was time for a "management activity" for this CRP. This management activity was "to ensure plant diversity and wildlife benefits, while ensuring protection of the soil and water resources." Delighted to comply, we were instructed that "[e]nclosed with this letter is information concerning approved management activities for the conservation practice indicated above." We were instructed to "notify this office as to what activity you intend to complete," and to inform the office when the activity was completed.
There were two real options, since the management activity had to be completed between Aug. 2 and Sept. 1.
One option was burning the CRP, which is unsafe and untenable between Aug. 2 and Sept. 1, unless burning neighboring CRP or ripe wheat fields isn't a concern. We erred on the side of safety and ruled that option out.
Option two was to clip and remove vegetation, but not by rotary mowing. Given the limited options, we chose this one.
August rolled around, and wheat harvest began. One day, we noticed our neighbors mowing and baling the grass on the county road running past the CRP. Mindful of the management activity time frame, we asked the neighbors if they cared to clip and bale the vegetation on the CRP. They happily agreed, and lo and behold, the beautiful, clean CRP yielded 33 large round bales. Mission accomplished! The vegetation was clipped, and with the transport of the bales it would be removed, right?
Dad immediately notified the FSA of our management activity. The FSA director, who is a friend, and a decent man who is "just doing his job," advised Dad that we were in violation of our contract unless the bales were destroyed, preferably by burning.
This seemed absurd to me, so I called FSA. The director verified the management activity could not include actually using the large round grass bales. Indeed, if we didn't destroy the bales, we were in violation of our CRP contact. The remedy for failure to comply could be a cancellation of the CRP contract and repayment of all previous CRP payments.
We wrote to appeal the decision, and to appeal to the common sense of the FSA, but to no avail. In fact, in the end, not only were we forced to burn the bales, but we also had to actually pay the FSA $62 for them to come out and verify the burning.
When I think of "conservation," I think of the common sense of feeding natural grass to livestock, or providing clean hay to friendly helpful neighbors who assist in cutting and baling during a busy harvest season. But to the FSA, collecting $62 to watch farmers destroy 33 perfectly good bales is apparently "mission accomplished" and a display of "long standing core values." Is it any wonder farmers are wary of federal government regulation?
Editor's note: Welte is an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm in Grand Forks, N.D., and a small grains farmers in Grand Forks County.