FSA proposes to consolidate offices
ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- A proposal to consolidate USDA Farm Service Agency offices across the country is once again being pitched -- albeit at a much less aggressive stance than last fall, when Congress blocked plans for the agency's reorganization under the so-called FSA Tomorrow idea.
Teresa Lasseter, the new Farm Service Agency (FSA) administrator, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the consolidation of some county offices is necessary to provide producers with better service. The FSA works with farmers to access government payments and loans for their crop and livestock operations.
The agency's plan to reorganize comes with mixed reaction from area FSA officials.
Carol Groen, director of the Lyon County, Iowa, FSA office, said farmers in her county don't want to see offices merged.
"One of the main reasons that the FSA Tomorrow plan did not go through was that producers did not think the service was going to be as good," Groen said. "(We) talked to numerous producers. They want county offices kept open, and they don't want to drive 50 to 60 miles to the next office.
"Also, producers want access to FSA employees who have knowledge of the complex programs. They want personal contact with people who can explain programs to them and help solve problems they have with program eligibility, payments, or related issues," she added.
Groen realizes, however, that steps need to be taken to reduce costs. She said plans for the agency are just now forming, and it's too early to tell how county offices in Iowa would be impacted.
"We know something has to be done to balance the budget," Groen added.
Alan Donaldson, district FSA director for northwest Iowa, said its counties serve a rather large number of producers -- unlike county offices in some states, where the agency may be a one-person operation.
Still, he said there may be room for improvement.
"We don't want to continue doing what we've always done," Donaldson said. "We want to modernize as well. That being said, we want to provide the best service we can to producers."
On-line capabilities are now offered for producers, but because of the complexity of some FSA programs, first-hand contact with a county office is still preferred.
"For some farmers, they're very comfortable with working online," Donaldson said. "But other farmers may not necessarily be as comfortable with that. We want to maintain a balance and provide that personal service whenever possible."
No changes within the agency will happen without public hearings and talks with Congress, said Lasseter, and state-level officials will have significant control over where cuts are made.
Donaldson said after last year's fallout from the announced downsizing, the agency received one message loud and clear -- any decisions must be based on input from the grassroots level.
"They want input from producers as well as agriculture and business groups -- they want a whole feel for this new proposal," he said. "To me, that's a lot better way to do it."
More than 2,300 counties -- virtually every rural county in the nation -- have a Farm Service Agency Office. Under the FSA Tomorrow plan introduced last fall, states like Maryland, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia would have seen the biggest cuts, with 40 percent or more offices closed.
But when that plan was announced to lawmakers -- most of whom hadn't been briefed beforehand -- Congress reacted with alarm, passing legislation that blocked any closures without public hearings.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said there won't be consolidation without involvement from lawmakers. "We'll work with Congress. We heard the message, and we heard it loud and clear," he told reporters recently.
Lawmakers are receptive so far.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he's cautious but open to the idea. "I never said no to reorganization last year," he said. "I only said what a screwy way of bringing this to our attention."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.