"Oh, yeah, I've been getting lots of calls," said David Curtis, Director of the FSA offices in both counties. "Producers are asking what they can do to try to keep the offices open. There are a lot of farmers in our area that take advantage of our programs."
On Tuesday, Jan. 10, the USDA announced it intends to close 260 offices and other facilities nationwide, in an attempt to cut $150 million from its annual budget. Without the action, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says employee furloughs or lay-offs will be needed.
In Arkansas, the USDA wants to close 10 Farm Service Agency offices, including the offices in Fulton and Izard Counties. It also proposes closing five Rural Development Offices, including the one in Izard County, and a Natural Resource Conservation Office.
Farm Service Agency offices offer disaster assistance, help with conservation programs, farm loans, grants and other assistance offered under the federal farm bill.
"Our most popular program in this area is the Non-insured Assistance Program. For a $250 administration fee, producers are protected if they receive pasture and hay losses of 50 percent or more," said Curtis.
Under the USDA proposal, Curtis and two FSA employees who work under him will keep their jobs, but will be reassigned to Sharp or Stone County offices.
Fulton County farmers would still be able to participate in USDA assistance programs, using the Sharp County FSA office in Ash Flat. Izard County producers would be assigned to the Stone County office in Mountain View.
According to Curtis, the USDA will hold public hearings in Fulton and Izard Counties on Feb. 3, followed by a public comment period.
"We are shocked that Fulton and Izard Counties are on the (closing) list," said Ted York. York, a member of the Farm Service Agency Fulton County Committee, participated in the conference call in which Arkansas USDA cuts were announced. "We have some of the largest case loads in the area - more cases than Sharp and Baxter Counties. Most of us are small, part-time farmers. We need all the help we can get, but will have a hard time driving to Ash Flat or Mountain View to get it."
York also pointed out that farmers pay administrative fees to participate in FSA programs.
"We raise enough money through fees to more than cover the rent for the office and, since the employees are keeping their jobs, I don't see how closing the offices saves anything," said York.
Like all federal agencies, the USDA is under pressure to review its operations and cut spending. Its Blueprint for Stronger Service seeks to streamline operations by closing small offices with two or fewer employees, if there is a larger office within 20 miles.
|Under USDA guidelines, the FSA offices in Fulton and Izard Counties should each have two and a half to three employees but, because of past budget cuts, the offices are operated by Curtis and one other employee in each office.|
Curtis, who has worked in Fulton County for 28 years, took over the Izard County office six years ago in another cost saving move, when its director retired.
"David (Curtis) is director of both offices and has two employees, instead of the five or six they should have," said York. "It seems like he has done a lot to save the USDA money, and they are penalizing us by closing both offices. At least one office should remain open."
The Rural Development Office in Melbourne, which is also listed for closure, serves Izard, Fulton, Baxter and Stone Counties. It offers a variety of loan programs to encourage development or purchase of single and multi-family housing, community facilities, infrastructure improvements and business development in rural areas.
The Melbourne Rural Development office currently does not have a director. Office employee Lea Foster said she has not received information as to what office would serve residents of Izard, Fulton, Baxter and Stone Counties, if the Melbourne office closes.
According to Foster, her office has received "several calls" expressing concern about the possible closing of the Melbourne Rural Development Office.
First District Congressman Rick Crawford has indicated he will question the decision to close the Farm Service and Rural Development offices in Fulton and Izard Counties.
In a statement from Washington Crawford said, "All of Washington must do more with less. However...we cannot sit back and let national bureaucrats harm our state's rural communities. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I look forward to working with the citizens of Fulton and Izard Counties to make the case for keeping their facilities open."
The USDA public hearing concerning closing the Fulton County FSA office will take place at the Fulton County courthouse at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 3.
The hearing into closing the Izard County FSA office will be held at the Izard County courthouse at 2:00 p.m. on February 3.