Farm agency mergers on hold

Maryland included in plan to consolidate offices across country

November 27, 2005|By ELLIE BAUBLITZ | ELLIE BAUBLITZ,SUN REPORTER

A preliminary plan to consolidate Farm Service Agency offices nationwide, including several in Maryland, has been put on indefinite hold while U.S. Department of Agriculture officials rethink ways to save money and continue to provide current levels of service to farmers.

The plan, dubbed FSA Tomorrow, was launched about a year ago "to look at office structure nationwide. ... We wanted to see how best we could restructure and keep well-staffed and well-trained offices," said Steve Connelly, assistant deputy administrator for farm programs at the USDA.

The USDA provided the criteria and asked the states to come up with a plan to consolidate offices, looking primarily at the distance between offices, workload and staffing, Connelly said.

For instance, of the 2,351 FSA offices nationwide, more than 400 have two or fewer full-time staff, nearly 500 are within 20 miles of the next closest office, and 30 have no full-time staff.

The plan that was publicized last month called for Maryland Farm Service Agency offices to be reduced from 21 to 12, but "that didn't mean all those county offices were going to be closed," Connelly said.

"We were going to have to do more research. This was a business analysis - could we save money in rent and infrastructure by consolidating? We wouldn't have necessarily closed that many offices," he said.

"The way it was perceived it was a done deal and it wasn't; it was really a starting point," Connelly said.

The local Farm Service Agency offices administer federal farm programs, such as loans, financial assistance and conservation; provide emergency and disaster assistance; and oversee commodity price support programs.

The Carroll County office is one of the top in the state for conservation and commodity programs, said Kelly Hereth, executive director for the past 12 years. She oversees a staff of three full-timers who handle farming programs, and one part-timer who handles loan programs.

"In conservation and commodity programs, we're consistently in the top four or five of all the counties," Hereth said. "In terms of dollars, as of Nov. 1, we're the second-largest office in the state. It's good in terms of we're doing our job informing people that they're eligible for benefits, and it's that much more federal assistance going into economic development."

The Carroll office was not slated to be closed, Hereth said.

As a member of the FSA Tomorrow state task force, Hereth said, "We had to evaluate the number of producers served, dollar amounts, and business activity. The concern is we have a budget that is not going to meet our needs."

Connelly agreed. "We have limited resources and are trying to use them as wisely as we can to make sure our customers continue to get the best service."

Another aspect of FSA Tomorrow was to try to use some of the money saved by consolidating offices to upgrade technology.

Though FSA has e-mail capability, its computer system predates the Internet. To keep the system updated, new software must be installed every two weeks, and that is very expensive, Connelly said.

But that process is on hold as well. For now, FSA will work with the computer system it has while the agency decides "how to allocate the money that was appropriated when the president signed the 2006 agriculture budget," Connelly said. "It will be tight."

As for the farmers, "They are going to have to say what they're willing to work with, if they're not embracing the technology and the Internet to help them with complicated rules, if they want that personal contact to help them in an FSA office, then they need to say how far they're willing to drive to a local office," Hereth said.

"Farmers need to let their reps know how much time they're willing to invest to get benefits," she said.

ellie.baublitz@baltsun.com

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