On Jan. 9, the United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack introduced the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Blueprint for Stronger Service at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting.
According to the USDA press release, it is a plan that helps producers continue driving American’s economy by streamlining operations and cutting costs. Vilsack believes this will be better for the challenges farmers face today as opposed to 150 years ago when the department was founded.
“We must innovate, modernize and be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” Vilsack said in a statement. “We must build on the record accomplishments of farm communities in 2011 with a stronger, more effective USDA in 2012 and beyond.”
The USDA plans to close 259 domestic offices, facilities and labs as well as seven foreign offices. This will impact roughly 20 agencies, with USDA headquarters in Washington and 46 states and one U.S. territory.
One USDA agency, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), will be consolidating the most offices in the country — 131 county offices in 32 states.
“We have 131 offices that qualify under a congressional mandate known as the [Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008],” said Chief of Public Affairs of FSA Kent Politsch. “If the FSA wants to consolidate offices, it could only do that under specific circumstances.”
The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the 2008 Farm Bill, states that it will govern the bulk of federal agriculture and related programs for the next five years.
“The offices consolidated would have to be within 20 miles of another office and have two or fewer employees,” Politsch said.
The USDA expects FSA offices to close by the beginning of July and all other agencies will have closed their offices by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.
According to Politsch, the largest numbers of offices that will be affected are in the state of Texas. There were no consolidations proposed in California. Politsch said of the 131 offices, roughly 174 employees will be affected, but will be offered reassignment.
“One requirement [by the 2008 Farm Bill] is a public meeting must be held within 30 days of the initial announcement of a closure,” said USDA Communications Coordination team member Matthew Herrick. “So we’ve put up a schedule of public meetings across the country about when they’ll take place.”
Herrick said anyone can attend these public meetings to comment about the proposed office closures. He said 90 days from the initial announcement, the Agriculture Secretary will make a decision and the USDA can move forward with closures.
“Our secretary pointed out that this is necessary to modernize the department to ensure that we’re doing all that we can do in the services we have to do for folks on a constrained budget,” Herrick said. “This is part of the 12 percent, or $3 billion, reduction plan.”
Congress requires the USDA to operate with 12 percent less than it did in 2011. Through the decision to close and consolidate offices around the country, $150 million will be saved annually.
According to Herrick, more than 7,000 people have left the department in the last 15 months. They have either retired or taken early retirement or buyout options.
“It was done mainly to provide flexibility in our budget to provide services to folks at the same level as before with no disruption in service,” Herrick said. “We are planning for the future instead of letting budget cuts and restraints manage those decision for us.”
CLAIRE TAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.