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Crawford seeks to stop Farm Service Agency closings

Saturday, April 14, 2012

(Photo)
Despite the protests of farmers and community leaders, Farm Service Agency offices in Fulton and Izard Counties remain on a USDA closure list. Congressman Rick Crawford has introduced a bill which would protect the local offices from closure, because of their high workload volumes. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
First District Arkansas Congressman Rick Crawford has introduced a bill which could protect the Fulton and Izard County Farm Service Agency offices from closing.

The Fulton and Izard County offices are among 10 Arkansas FSA offices listed for closing, as part of a USDA effort to cut $150 million dollars from its budget.

Under a bill called the Farm Service Accountability Act, Crawford, who represents Fulton and Izard Counties, seeks to stop the USDA from closing any FSA offices until it performs a workload assessment for each office.

The bill, co-sponsored by Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell, claims the USDA decision to close offices with two or fewer employees, when there is another office within 20 miles, should be based on staff levels set for each office in the 2008 Farm Bill, not the actual current employment.

Fulton and Izard County offices should have two and a half to three employees each, and be exempt from the budget cuts.

However, six years ago, the offices voluntarily reduced employees to save money.

Under a shared management agreement, there is just one employee in each office, and David Curtis serves as director for both locations.

Crawford's bill also wants any FSA closings to be based on an office's workload. While Fulton and Izard Counties are small population-wise, both have large workloads -- Fulton County ranks 47th out of the state's 75 counties in subsidies received, for example, and both counties serve more farm families than Sharp, Baxter and other counties in the region, which are larger.

"The Farm Service Accountability Act will make sure that offices with high workloads are not closed," Crawford said. "The USDA must recognize the producers' needs and take workload into consideration before any FSA office is closed."

Ranchers, farmers and citizens in both Fulton and Izard Counties expressed strong opposition to the closings at January public hearings -- insisting the offices are well used, that they already save money by sharing a director and pay their own way through administrative fees from farmers who participate in USDA programs.

If the Fulton and Izard county offices do close as proposed, Fulton County farmers will be served by the Sharp County Farm Service Agency office, and Izard County farmers will be served by the Stone County FSA office.

Curtis told The News the USDA is expected to announce at the end of May what proposed budget reductions will actually be implemented.

At a Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Subcommittee meeting on March 29, Arkansas Senator David Pryor noted that 131 FSA offices were initially slated for closure, and all 131 were included on a final list.

"The USDA held public meetings throughout the state to hear from Arkansans about how office closures would affect the local communities," Pryor reminded Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack. "After Arkansans took the time to attend the meetings, I'm disappointed the USDA neglected to make any changes to their plan."

Pryor added, "Criteria (to close offices) must be clear, and communities voices must be heard. It's unacceptable that I've continued to receive conflicting information from the USDA. Arkansans need answers."

A federal agency must wait 90 days, after notifying Congress, before it can impose proposed budget cuts. May 28 would be the end of the USDA's waiting period.

Under Crawford's bill, all closings would be delayed until the USDA could evaluate workloads and 2008 staffing levels for each office it wants to close. It would have to then begin a new 90 day comment period and report to counties and Congess before any office closings can occur.

"We all know that Washington is trying to do more with less these days," Crawford said. "However, we must ensure that decisions coming from Washington do not cripple our family farmers."



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