FSA closings could add to farmers' burdens

On the Farm

October 16, 2005|By STACY KAPER | STACY KAPER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The one-stop shop for such federal farm programs as income stabilization, disaster relief and credit programs will close nearly half of its Maryland service centers within the next year as part of a national consolidation.

Hundreds of Harford farmers, including most grain and dairy producers who rely on federal loans, price supports and conservation programs, could be forced to travel to neighboring counties or file documents online if the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency closes its office in Forestville.

"If they close in our area, it will be more of a burden for farmers," said Candace Lohr, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau, a chapter of a national nonprofit farmers organization. "Any time you lose a resource, it does put a hardship on you."

Whittling Maryland's FSA offices from 21 to 12 is part of a plan to shut 713 service locations nationwide - about 30 percent of all offices - and modernize a framework that dates from the Great Depression, said Steve Connelly, a national FSA farm programs administrator and a former Maryland FSA executive director.

A task force of FSA directors from around Maryland who are deciding which nine state offices should close met Thursday in Columbia to review the ZIP codes of farmers participating in FSA programs, said Elizabeth Anderson, Maryland FSA executive director and head of the task force.

Some agricultural producers say they should be included in the decision-making process.

"This is not in the best interest of the farmer," said Ed Grimmel, a Jarrettsville grain farmer and a board member of the Harford County FSA oversight committee. "They are cutting the farmer's throat, and the thing that irks the farmers is they don't have any input. They have no say."

Anderson said that because consolidation plans are due to the national FSA by Nov. 15, now is the time for producers to weigh in by contacting county agriculture directors.

Harford County Agriculture Director C. John Sullivan III said he has received nothing from the FSA directing him to gather farmers' perspectives.

If the Forestville office closes, as he thinks it will because of staff cutbacks there in recent years, "it'll be a loss to the county," Sullivan said.

"We are trying to find the best possible locations for service centers in Maryland," Anderson said. "I think there is this huge misconception out there," she said, adding that each FSA office will be better staffed and time required on FSA program applications will decrease.

The consolidation would not cut any of the FSA's approximately 40 programs or its billions of dollars in program spending, Connelly said, but would eventually save the agency $50 million a year.

The money saved would be spent on revamping information technology infrastructure, training and equipment. It also would help replace "shared-management offices," where agents float between two counties, with fewer, fully-staffed offices, Connelly said.

An example of shared-management offices that would be eliminated but not necessarily consolidated are Harford and Cecil counties, where the one FSA executive director, Barbara Clugston, divides her time between the two offices.

Accessibility is an issue, said David Almquist, a senior agent with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension for Harford and Cecil counties.

"Potentially, every farmer in the county could be affected," if they have to go elsewhere to find out about federal programs, Almquist said.

"Harford County is already teamed up with Cecil. It would be a logical thing to combine them," Almquist said.

Clugston said, it is premature to make predictions.

"We know nothing as to which offices will close," she said.

Of the hundreds of individual farm contracts in Cecil and Harford counties, there might be only two producers who overlap and are registered for FSA programs in both counties, said Lynn Dabler, a Cecil County FSA program technician.

Closing the Cecil or the Harford office would be hard to imagine, said Nancy Rose, a Whitehall-based soybean, corn and beef producer who farms 6,000 acres across three counties.

It is difficult for farmers to find the time to travel to a local FSA office, she said, and increasing the driving distance would make it "very, very hard for some farmers.".

"No one would benefit. ... It would make no sense at all if they were to combine the Harford and Cecil offices," she said, adding that the offices are overworked.

The FSA said such consolidation is designed to improve service.

"I've spoken with several farmers who have said that staffing is an issue. We have had several incidences where a farmer has gone all the way down to the FSA office, only to have to come back another time" because the person he or she needed wasn't there, Anderson said.

Some producers also worried that FSA office closings would make it too difficult for small and part-time farmers to receive the assistance they need to stay afloat.

Even if participation in all FSA programs could be done online, "a lot of farmers are not computer literate," Rose said.

Farm programs have helped keep farmers in business in the past 10 years, in some cases contributing about 15 percent to 20 percent of farm income, Grimmel said.

Accessibility to the programs dictates whether there is a "red bottom line or a black bottom line," Grimmel said. "It is going to put some farmers out of business, and they will just say, `To heck with it.'"

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