Once again, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got a lot of questions and concerns expressed Wednesday by members of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee about USDA plans to close as many as 250 county Farm Service Agency offices nationally.
At a subcommittee hearing, senators said they were worried about USDA attempting to make such cuts while implementing a new farm bill -- one with a far more complex commodity program than the 2008 legislation. Moreover, a lot of farmers just don’t have the capability to do some of the work needed for the FSA at home. Another problem is making sure the offices that remain open have adequate computer programs to service farmers, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "We are setting ourselves up for real explosives in rural America," Tester said.
Vilsack replied, "We're not going to have that."
The secretary noted at least 30 FSA offices have no employees in them at all. Another 111 offices have one full-time or part-time employee. Then there are another 100 or so with one employee that are within 30 miles of another FSA office. Vilsack said the consolidation is about improving services by ensuring more cross-trained people will be at bigger offices to offer services.
"This is about better service," he said. "It's not about services going away. It's not about consolidation for the sake of consolidation.
Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he believed people in the most rural areas need USDA services the most.
Vilsack also told senators that poultry inspections need to be modernized and rely more on science than visual inspections. USDA has been getting significant pushback from consumer groups for trying to change the way poultry are inspected. Vilsack again argues that food safety would be improved with a more modern system.
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