Budget cuts symbolCQ NEWS
March 26, 2014 – 3:29 p.m.
Move to Trim Farm Service Agency Network Unpopular With Appropriators
By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ Roll Call
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s call for modernizing his department’s network of Farm Service Agency offices met with bipartisan skepticism Wednesday.
The reaction from members of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee actually represents progress on the issue. Farm state lawmakers have dismissed out of hand office closing or consolidation proposals by Vilsack and his predecessors in the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.
Vilsack testified before the subcommittee on a fiscal 2015 budget request of nearly $20 billion in discretionary funding, which is controlled by the subcommittee.
The department proposes $122.4 billion in mandatory funding, which is technically outside the panel’s jurisdiction although appropriators sometimes reduce funding levels. When Vilsack appeared before the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee on March 14, the focus was largely on the department’s school meal program and food aid programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income people.
The food programs drew little comment from the senators, but Vilsack’s proposal to close as many as 250 FSA offices attracted attention.
He told the subcommittee that he expects no action will be taken in calendar year 2014. He said 30 offices have no full-time staff and another 111 one-person offices are located within 20 miles of another office.
Vilsack envisions offices staffed by several people who are knowledgeable not only about farm, conservation and disaster assistance programs but also areas such as rural development and local food market opportunities. There would be main offices with a supervisor and staff, branch offices with several workers and satellite offices open by appointment. All the offices would function as one-stop sources of information and help although there would be a greater emphasis on online services.
“Our FSA budget has been hit pretty hard in the last several years and as a result we reduced our workforce by 20 percent. In addition, we are expecting technology changes which should improve the way we do our work and should save time for our staff,” Vilsack said.
The focus this year will be to determine where the work and the concentration of farm operations line up, he said.
“This is not about saving money. This is about redirecting resources and shoring up the system and modernizing the system,” Vilsack added.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the Department of Agriculture has talked for years about streamlining operations and co-locating FSA and Natural Resources Conservation offices for greater efficiency. Not much has changed, though, he said.
“There are tremendous challenges still with this concept that farmers have the technology necessary to do this at home or their office. If we could be a partner in this process, it would be useful,” Moran said, echoing a request by ranking Republican Roy Blunt that the USDA update subcommittee members as the process moves along.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and farmer, urged Vilsack to proceed cautiously. His brother-in-law in Montana already drives 70 miles one way to see an FSA agent. Tester also said while there are tech-savvy farmers, a number of producers do not have the at-home technology to do online applications at home.
Tester noted that the USDA has its own long-standing history of an aging computer network and incompatible computer software in FSA offices.
“I just got a call from my neighbor that went in [to a local FSA office] and they didn’t have the program set up to do what needed to be done. They love their FSA agents, but were sent home and told to come back another day,” Tester said.
FSA offices may be more critical than ever as the 2014 farm bill (PL 113-79) is implemented, Tester said. The law replaces annual direct payments to eligible farmers with new price and revenue support programs and expanded crop insurance. Farmers must make a one-time selection of either the price or revenue program as their financial safety net for the life of the five-year farm bill.
“If offices are closed and they [farmers] don’t get those programs in a timely manner, we’re setting ourselves up for an explosion in rural America,” Tester warned.
“We don’t want that and that is not going to happen,” Vilsack responded. “The goal is to make sure we serve folks in a proper and effective way and that we modernize a system that honestly, senator, requires modernization.” Vilsack added that changes would have to address Tester’s concerns.
“Modernizing the system language has been around for 25 years and it hasn’t been done yet,” replied Tester.
“It’s happening, senator,” Vilsack replied.
Source: CQ News
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