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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The USDA asked for comments - but did it really listen?

Posted Friday, February 24, 2012, at 8:30 AM

(Photo)
The Fulton County courtroom was full and people were still arriving as the Farm Service Agency prepared to discuss its proposal to close FSA offices in Fulton and Izard Counties.
On Feb. 10, farmers and community leaders filled up courtrooms in Fulton and Izard Counties to argue that their Farm Service Agencies should remain open. They are among 10 Arkansas FSA offices listed for closure, as the USDA tries to cut its budget by $150 million.

State FSA officials presided over the meetings to give the communities the opportunity to comment on the closure proposals.

People are naturally upset when their ox is being gored, so the meetings could have resulted in the rants of angry and irrational mobs.

I was, however, proud of the people who gathered for both meetings.

Many of the speakers were farmers - men and women who spend a lot of time working alone on their farms, and some made the comment they are not comfortable with speaking in public.

But, while some started off haltingly, they all spoke plainly and from the heart, with well reasoned arguements.

The connection that farm families feel to their Farm Service Agency has been very surprising to me. FSA is a government agency, a FEDERAL agency, and you rarely encounter people who have warm and fuzzy feelings toward any goverment agency, or its red tape and procedues.

Fulton and Izard County farmers and ranchers expressed the appreciation for the one on one service they receive from the small FSA staff in both counties. At FSA, they are able to obtain low cost protection for their hay crops, and participate in other programs that help them improve their farms and the environment.

The main arguement made for keeping the offices open is the fact they are efficiently run and well used. Even though both counties are small, population-wise, both show higher usage than many larger counties. Figures show 219 farm families in Fulton County participated in FSA programs in 2010; 201 families participated in Izard County.

'Instead of closing FSA offices with two or fewer employees and have another office 25 or fewer miles away, as the 2008 Farm Bill recommended, how about closing offices with less usage and larger budgets?' speakers suggested.

Another point of contention was, Fulton and Izard Counties have already saved the USDA more than $400,000 in recent years by sharing a director, and keeping staff below recommended levels.

By paying administrative fees on services used, Fulton and Izard farmers generate enough money to cover the costs of leasing office space and operations. Since employees will be moved to either Sharp or Stone Counties, salaries are not being eliminated.

'So, show us how closing our offices is going to save any money?' many speakers asked.

The only time anger rose was at Salem, when Arkansas FSA Director Linda Newkirk repeatedly ignored that question.

When pressed, Newkirk said, "I haven't counted it (savings through closings)."

When asked to see the budget, Newkirk said she didn't have the budget, and later admitted the budget is USDA's budget in Washington.

I took from that comment that the USDA has placed an arbitrary number on each office closing, with no real connection to reality.

By the time the meetings ended, those who took time out of their busy day to make their comments seemed to feel they had wasted their time.

No matter how much research they had done, or how reasoned their comments were, their comments had not really been heard.

Arkansas FSA officals were only there to collect comments because they were told to. Participants were told spoken and written comments were going to be sent to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, and the testimony made about each office listed for closure would be used to help decide which offices would be closed and which offices would be spared.

That means Vilsack has a lot of reading to do since the USDA has proposed closing 260 offices nationwide.

I guess the USDA Secretary is a speed reader. I was told that all of the meeting comments were sent to the USDA on Tuesday, Feb. 14. On Monday, Feb. 20 (six days later), state FSA directors were to meet in Washington and be given the budget reduction plan they will impliment for their state, including office closings.

Stacks of testimony will obviously go unread. If an office is spared from closing, it will likely be due to the efforts of a state's congressional delegation or governor with clout. In other words, behind-closed-doors horse trading.

The USDA's decision to invite public comment on individual office closings is similar to the process the U.S. Postal Service is using as it goes after rural post offices.

As I said about the Post Office community meetings, why waste time and money and get a community's hopes up with bogus go-through-the-motions meetings? What citizens think or what the evidence shows doesn't really matter, budgets have to be cut and offices have to be closed, whether money is really going to be saved or not.

Some people who work with FSA offices or are familiar with Washington politics are still hopeful the final decision on the Fulton and Izard County FSA offices will be to leave one of the two offices open.

That would make a lot of sense - leaving a process that works well in place. Director David Curtis has already shown he can efficiently run both offices, and Fulton County residents would not have to do their business in Ash Flat and Izard County residents would not have to travel to Mountain View for FSA service.

I hope those people are right, but I fear it may simply be too much trouble to change the fates of Fulton and Izard Counties. It may just be easier to leave the tiny specks in the USDA budget on the closing list.


Comments
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Takes alot of separating the wheat from the chaff Mr. Irby - here's the GAO's Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2012 (opens pdf):

http://www.gao.gov/assets/130/125836.pdf

Here's where the information Arkansas' FSA Director Linda Newkirk couldn't provide - can be found:

http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/Home.html

-- Posted by HDucker on Fri, Feb 24, 2012, at 3:58 PM

First link above goes to the wrong budget proposal - apologies. Here's USDA:

http://www.obpa.usda.gov/budsum/FY13buds...

-- Posted by HDucker on Fri, Feb 24, 2012, at 4:22 PM


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