Courtesy USDA/ Bob Nichols
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the closure of more than 250 USDA offices as part of the department’s Blueprint for Stronger Service.
As part of an effort to cut expenses and streamline operations, the USDA will shutter more than 250 offices, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 9, 2012.
In his remarks at the 93rd annual meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Vilsack introduced the department’s Blueprint for Stronger Service, calling it a product of the White House’s Cabinet-wide initiative to cut spending and eliminate taxpayer waste.
“The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago,” he explained. “We must innovate, modernize and be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. We must build on the record accomplishments of farm communities in 2011 with a stronger, more effective USDA in 2012 and beyond.”
The USDA’s plan calls for the closure of 259 domestic offices, facilities and labs, as well as seven foreign offices. Farm Service Agency offices will account for 131 of the closures, while 43 Rural Development offices will be shuttered, as well. The rest of the closures will impact agricultural research stations; Natural Resource Conservation offices; Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service offices; and other agencies.
Many of the offices targeted for closure are no longer staffed or have a very small staff (one or two people); several are also located within 20 miles of other USDA offices. The department also attributed many of the closures to technology improvements, advanced USDA service centers and increased availability of broadband service—all factors that decrease the demand for brick-and-mortar facilities.
Other changes outlined in the Blueprint proposal include:
Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, called the cuts “disappointing,” citing several recent austerity measures that the agricultural community has borne the brunt of.
Vilsack and the USDA “have made great strides toward streamlining and economizing the department’s operations,” he noted in a press release sent out after Vilsack’s announcement. “Since 2010, Congress has cut USDA’s discretionary spending levels by about 12 percent, and USDA has done its best to prevent those reductions from affecting the quality of service that farmers and ranchers have come to expect. With the latest spending reductions, it was not possible to avoid painful cuts that will harm farmers and ranchers across the country.”
Despite the USDA’s efforts to minimize inconvenience to farmers, the closures will still be detrimental to large- and small-scale farmers and rural communities, Goule says. In rural areas, he explains, USDA offices are as much social hubs as they are economic boosters.
“USDA facilities, in particular FSA and NRCS offices, are where farmers do a lot of paperwork. Nutrient-management plants, farm-program eligibility forms and other requirements are all filed with these offices,” he says. “They also are a place to learn more about USDA’s opportunities for farmers. Just like any other institution, like a school, church or courthouse, a USDA office also offers a sense of community in rural areas.”
While any farmer affected by a local office closure will see “significant inconveniences,” Goule points out that this may pose a particular challenge to beginning farmers, who sometimes need to make several trips to their FSA office as they collect the appropriate farm documents and learn how to correctly complete and submit federal forms.
Goule acknowledges that streamlined processes and USDA agencies’ adoption of paperless record keeping and e-signature technology will help make life easier for farmers.
“USDA’s been long overdue for improved technology, so any efforts to modernize data systems are certainly welcome. Streamlined compliance forms are helpful, too, so it’s easy to see how the need for some brick-and-mortar facilities is reduced,” he concedes. “However, it is unfortunate to see streamlining contribute toward weakening ties in rural communities.”
Goule says that while he hopes a more streamlined USDA will have more time and money at its disposal to serve farmers and rural communities, he worries that farmers will instead be faced with a vicious circle.
“The saying ‘You get what you pay for,’ comes to mind. As we spend less and less on USDA service offices, we should expect fewer services. There are new cost-savings measures—information-technology advances, for example—but reduced investment now only sets up more cuts in the future.”