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FSA office closing plan anchored in baloney
By Alan Guebert
When word leaked Sept. 15 that the USDA planned to close more than 700 of it 2,353 Farm Service Agency offices around the country, reaction among Capitol Hill aggies was swift and mostly unkind.

“This proposal is ill-advised and ill-conceived... (and) yet another example of how out of touch Washington, D.C. is with life in rural America...”

“The USDA put the cart before the horse with their FSA Tomorrow plan... (there was) little or not consultation with local offices or our farmers and producer groups.”

And this from two of the Administration’s staunchest Republicans allies; the first Rep. Tim Johnson, Illinois; the latter Missouri’s Sen. Jim Talent.

With friends like that it didn’t take long before USDA’s “FSA Tomorrow,” an out-of-the-blue blueprint to shutter 30 percent of USDA’s farm program-administrating local offices throughout the U.S, was fried.

Within a week of the plan’s leak, the Senate voted to prohibit any FSA county office from closing until USDA presented Congress with a more detailed analysis of “Tomorrow’s” impact and cost. The Senate Ag Committee will hold a hearing on the plan October 20.

If the yet-to-be-done analysis is anything like the background material USDA used to support the office closure idea, Congress likely will laugh itself silly when the document hits Capitol Hill.

For example, one of the “talking points” USDA recommended state Farm Service Agency directors use to sell the staff-cutting plan to the local yokels was “FSA has 2,351 offices nationwide. There are 619 John Deere dealers in the United States selling agricultural equipment.”

The comparison - which resembles something an urban MBA wannabe might draw after a 10-minute surf of the Web - is ridiculous and deceiving.

First, most Deere dealers operate multiple sites. So 619 dealers - FSA’s number; not Deere’s - nationwide actually own and operate, according to Deere, 1,600 locations, or more than two-and-a-half as many as FSA’s faulty comparison would have you believe.

Second, while FSA is the only federal farm program administrator in town, Deere isn’t the only iron seller. Case IH has about 700 dealers nationwide and more than 1,100 sales and service sites; AGCO has 1,200 dealers in North America who operate more than 1,500 sales and service sites.

Combined, the Big Three (excluding the thousands of short-line implement dealers scattered across the U.S.) have nearly twice the presence in rural America than FSA.

And for good reason: it works best for them and best for their customers, a concept FSA bosses need to reacquaint themselves with.

(There’s some evidence they already have. When USDA placed the “talking points” memo on FSA’s website, the misleading Deere comparison had been removed from the memo given earlier to state FSA directors.)

Another baloney-laced statistic USDA uses to sell its desire to control farm program delivery from Washington explains that “FSA’s Farm Loan employees are located in only 35 percent of our county offices, yet they serve the identical geographical regions that our farm program employees serve in all 2,351 offices.”

Again, reasonable sounding until you compare the workloads of FSA’s loan officers to those of FSA farm program officers.

In 2003, FSA doled out $3.8 billion in farm loans to fewer than 30,000 farm borrowers while FSA county offices issued millions of farm program checks totaling more than $25.4 billion to hundreds of thousands of producers.

Another FSA “talking point” whopper claims that country FSA offices are a holdover from the “Depression” when one in four Americans lived on a farm while today “only one in 750 Americans live on a commercial farm.”

More hogwash. Farm program benefits are tied to land ownership, not to where the landowners live. Since many, if not most, of today’s landowners live in town, the number of “commercial farm” dwellers county FSA offices deal with is perfectly meaningless.

But meaninglessness is what you come to expect from an Administration and USDA that continue to sell trade deals than don’t deliver more trade, farm programs that deliver more profit to agribusiness than to farmers and ranchers, and crackpot plans - like “FSA Tomorrow” - to fix that which isn’t broken.

10/12/2005