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USDA Defends Cost-Cutting Plan

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack details the USDA's Blueprint for Stronger Service plan at the American Farm Bureau conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, Jan. 9.

Some farmers groups and consumer advocates are concerned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plan to close 259 offices nationwide could hurt farmers and food safety.

"I think the USDA has done the best they can by eliminating  offices that will have the least impact to our producers, but overall shutting 259 offices down… is going to impact the ability to serve our farmers and ranchers across the United States," said Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations with the National Farmers Union.

The USDA — with an annual budget of $145 billion — provides an array of services including emergency farm aid, farm loans, food safety inspection services and agricultural research.  The announced cuts would save about $150 million.

"I think it's very obvious that the 'cut first, think and ask questions later' mentality that Congress has had over the last year is starting to catch up with us," Goule said.

He said the proposed closing of some 131 Farm Service Agency county offices in 32 states would disproportionately affect older farmers. 

"The average age of the farmer is 55-years-old and aging," Goule said. "Many of them still need to go into the office, because they don't have email, a scanner, they don't know how to do a pdf, so going into that office is their direct contact with USDA to make that they are signed up properly, that they are within in compliance with their conservation plan, etc."

In Iowa, three Farm Service Agency offices are slated to close, and farmers in those counties have been calling the state office with concerns, said Beth Grabau of the Iowa State Farm Service Agency. 

She noted that some farm programs require an in-person discussion, such as applying for a loan and verifying the farm deed.  In those cases, farmers may have to drive further to visit an FSA agent.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his agency worked hard to ensure that FSA offices scheduled to shut down were close to another office.

"We're basically assigning that face-to-face work to offices that are located within 20 miles of the offices that are being closed," Vilsack said.  "So farmers and ranchers would have to travel maybe 10,15 additional miles, or in a different direction;  they'll still be able to see the same people, they'll just see them in different office."

The USDA is required to hold public hearings in every county affected by an FSA office closing. Grabau said in Iowa, those meetings will take place within 30 days; they'll then report back to the USDA, where a decision must be made within 90 days.

As for the overall plan, Vilsack noted that the USDA is streamlining operations and internal paperwork to cut costs with minimal employee layoffs and interruption to services for farmers and ranchers.  A cutback on travel and supplies has already saved the department $90 million.

But beyond the impact on farmers, some consumer advocates have expressed concern that closing one-third of Food Safety and Inspection Service offices in the country could hurt the USDA's ability to ensure meat safety.

"When you're cutting out a third of your offices and it's not clear how many folks are going to retire because they're looking over their shoulders, I think it really does affect our long-term food safety," said Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety

Vilsack stressed that the food safety office closings will not reduce the number of food safety inspection officers working in meat processing plants. 

"These offices basically do the administrative work of food safety, they're not involved in actually inspecting the food," Vilsack said.  "We're not reducing the number of food inspectors, we're not reducing our presence in the meat and egg processing facilities."

But Hanson said the consolidation will still likely hurt officials' ability to monitor and review food safety data.  Three of the five food safety offices slated to close are in  the Midwest (Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin), and some of the employees will be moved to the Des Moines, Iowa, office.

"The folks there in Des Moines are inheriting a pretty big area to look over," Hanson said.  "I do understand that the USDA is under pressure to cut, they're the second largest federal agency after the Defense Deparment…  but after years of food safety problems, you really need to look more carefully at whether you’re making right cuts in food safety."

Vilsack defended the USDA’s plan. 

"We could have taken the approach that most folks take when faced with budget cuts, we could have simply furloughed workers, we could have laid people off in significant numbers, but that would have, disrupted service," Vilsack said.  In addition to reducing travel, supply and cell phone expenses, "we looked at process improvement to reduce the amount of time it takes us to do our work, so we can do more work with fewer people."

Still these closings are not only causing some trepidation now, but raising concerns of what these trends might mean for the future.

"They're not closing labs yet, but we've outsourced so much of the rest of government that will probably be next on the list," Hanson said.  His next concern: "As they start to make the next round of cuts are they going to cut out the labs that are helping us understand what's going wrong with our food system?"

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

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