Under a drive to cut $150 million dollars in spending, the USDA has proposed closing 260 offices nationwide, and 10 Farm Service Agencies in Arkansas - including the offices in Fulton and Izard Counties.
Linda Newkirk, Arkansas FSA Executive Director, began both meetings by explaining the USDA must cut spending and, by "consolidating offices and staff" and using "ongoing technological advances," the farmers and ranchers "will continue to find FSA services to be accessible and efficient."
Rod Luther, an FSA District Director told both meetings that farmers and others were welcome to give feedback to help the USDA decide what offices will be closed, but warned the meeting was "not a question and answer period or a forum for debate."
Fulton County farmers take pride in their relationship with their Farm Service Agency office, and its long-time director, David Curtis.
The Fulton County Courthouse courtroom was standing room only as Jim Ledford was called as the first speaker.
Ledford wasted no time getting to the main beef that farmers have - once the Fulton County office closes, local farmers will have to travel to Sharp County to do FSA business.
"I feel like Fulton County's kind of isolated. It's way up here by itself and it's a big county. It would be a hardship, myself, if I had to travel to Sharp County, back and forth."
Ted York spoke on behalf of people like him, who farm but also hold jobs "off the farm." "Right now, we can take 30 minutes or an hour off work and go over and do our paperwork (at the Salem FSA office). If you move it to another county, we might have to take a half a day or a whole day to go and get our business done. It's an undue hardship. Some producers just won't take advantage of the services."
Two speakers noted the FSA apparently plans to do much of its business by computer, while many rural residents are not computer savvy.
"I really feel like FSA, the name says it all," Kathy Long said. "You're taking service away from the people who need it most. Here in Fulton County, technology is not an option for aging farmers. Most of us just won't be able to do that. We need face to face help with most of our problems. So, I believe the Farm Service Agency needs to stay in Fulton County." Long's comments drew loud applause.
Karrol Fowlkes was one of several speakers who pointed out Fulton County's FSA office is already doing "more with less," which is the USDA's battle cry. In 2005, Fulton and Izard Countiesbegan sharing an FSA director, and have worked to operate with fewer employees, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the federal agency.
Christi Shaver presented figures showing that, even though Fulton County is a small county, it ranks 47th out of 75 Arkansas counties in subsidies received. Fulton County's FSA office served about 500 families over the past five years, more than 100 more than the FSA office in Sharp County handled.
Other speakers pointed out the Fulton County office collects about $35,000 a year in administrative fees from farmers. That is enough money to cover rent and office expenses.
|Farmer and banker Mark Mongtomery said, since the two local employees will be transferred to Sharp or Stone Counties, "I don't really understand what the savings is (by closing the office)."||County Judge Charles Willett warned closing the local office will hurt the local economy, which is already struggling.|
Barry Aldridge agreed, explaining it this way: "The FSA brings money into this county to assist the farmer. The farmer uses this money here in this county with local businesses. That money exchanges hands a number of times. If our farmer has to go to another county...much of their business will be conducted when they are out of town. That money will be exchanged somewhere else."
Except for applause after each speaker, the crowd respectfully had its say.
But, as Newkirk moved to wrap up the meeting, Christi Shaver interrupted, asking, "If you're going to save money, can we please, as a public record, see the financial statement?"
"I don't have a copy of the budget here," Newkirk replied.
"Well, can we get a copy of the budget?" Shaver responded.
"How much are you going to save?," Dennis Brown joined in.
"The proposal is for nationwide. It's going to be $150 million (savings)," Newkirk said.
"We're not worried about nationwide. We're worried about Fulton County. How much are you going to save by closing the office," Brown shouted.
"I haven't counted it," Newkirk replied.
|As Brown and others persisted, Newkirk cut off further comment by saying, "Thank you for coming."|
Frustrated citizens, who felt their concerns had been ignored, continued to talk loudly as they filed out of the courtroom.
Three hours later at the Izard County Courthouse, its even larger courtroom was also filled to overflowing, as state FSA officials held a second meeting to take comment on a proposed office closing.
Before the meeting began, two farmers discussed the issue in earshot of a reporter.
"I don't even know where our office will be if they close this one," one said.
"I heard we would have to go to Stone County," the other responded."
"Stone County? I can hardly get to the office here. I'd hate to have to drive all the way over there (to Mountain View) every time I have FSA business," was the reaction.
"We're strangers there (in Stone County)," the second farmer added.
As in Fulton County, Izard County speakers felt strongly the office they have counted on for so many years, needs to remain in the community.
"Consider (the office closing) very, very carefully," Jerry Skidmore said. "Feed and fuel are already high. Why add the burden of travel on to our farmers?"
Jess Edwards made the same argument. "To move the office over there (Stone County), it will take all day to get business done. The roads to there are not in the greatest shape. Now, you can go to the office and get business done in one hour."
Doug Harber suggested it was wrong to close so many FSA office in Arkansas. He suggested the USDA always makes livestock producers suffer, while grain farmers are protected.
State Representative Tommy Wren commented on FSA officials who said their agency is reorganizing to "do more with less."
"In 2005, Fulton and Izard Counties decided they would do more with less by sacrificing - a shared management agreement that has saved the agency over $420,000," Wren testified. "We've got a shared agreement in Izard and Fulton Counties and we are doing more with less, and we're getting penalized."
Paul Miller, a cattle farmer and former state legislator said, "I can tell you we are going to fight this thing here in Izard County. We are not fighting for any special privileges, not at all. If the government's going to cut something, we just ask that you cut it fairly. Here we are, one of the most efficient counties in Arkansas and you want to take this away from us to go to some other counties that are not so efficient. Makes no sense. Not that the federal government ever makes too much sense."
Fewer people spoke in Izard County. They were quieter and more polite than Fulton County's crowd, but they were just as frustrated that, in their opinion, their farm service agency, which served 201 people last year with just one and a half employees, is being unfairly closed.
The testimony at the two hearings, along with written statements being accepted until mid-February, will be sent to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack. His office will make the final decisions as to whether all 210 FSA offices will be closed, or some should be spared and remain in the communities they serve.