Change Could Improve Services

Former FSA Chief: Bringing Farm Agencies Under One Umbrella Offers Advantages

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Val Dolcini, former Farm Service Agency head under the Obama administration, sees an opportunity for USDA to improve service to farmers and ranchers under some of the restructuring changes proposed by the new agriculture secretary. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The former head of the Farm Service Agency under the Obama administration is among those supporting at least parts of the USDA reorganization plan rolled out this week by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Val Dolcini, who led FSA from 2015 until leaving last January, told DTN that farmers, ranchers and landowners would benefit from the Trump administration's plan to bring under one umbrella the FSA, the Natural Resources Conservation Services and the Risk Management Agency.

"This is an opportunity really to better serve USDA's customers," Dolcini said. "Having these agencies together under the same undersecretary would remove some of the territoriality that goes on in government."

Under the reorganization plan rolled out Thursday, those three agencies -- FSA, NRCS and RMA -- would all be under one "undersecretary for farm production and conservation." Dolcini noted that position would become one of the most influential and powerful undersecretary positions in the federal government, overseeing more than 2,200 USDA offices nationally and roughly 25,000 or so employees.

"That's going to be a key position that will have a lot of influence," he said.

So far, no one has been nominated by the Trump administration for roughly 15 to 17 of the top staff positions at USDA, including the deputy secretary or undersecretary positions.

Further, such a reorganization would help improve the information technology flow between those three agencies. That has been a challenge in the past as agencies such as FSA and RMA have had different systems that made it difficult to share information.

USDA already has county offices around the country with FSA and NRCS staff sharing facilities. Bringing them closer under the same undersecretary would also ideally reduce paperwork and the number of appointments for farmers for enrolling in commodity programs or getting technical assistance with conservation programs, Dolcini said.

"The devil is in the details so you want to have them come out with more than just a bare-bones proposal, but this is really an opportunity for folks to look at customer issues, IT issues and regulatory issues to better serve USDA customers under one roof," Dolcini said.

Traditionally, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has been its own independent agency. So putting its programs under a new umbrella with the other farm programs left some conservation groups a little subdued in their support for the plan.

"As one of USDA's core partners, NACD's primary goal is to ensure that American landowners are given the tools and technical assistance they need to conserve and enhance our nation's natural resources," said Brent Van Dyke, president of National Association of Conservation Districts. "For this reason, we were glad to hear Secretary Perdue say that no reduction in the workforce will occur as a result of the reorganization."

The farm operations reorganization was just part of the plan rolled out by USDA on Thursday. The key element was the official creation of the undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. That position, created in the 2014 farm bill, will oversee the Foreign Agricultural Service and shift its focus more on exporting U.S. products and working with the U.S. Trade Representative's Office.

Farm groups largely praised USDA on Thursday for creating the trade undersecretary position, but they remained cautious about other aspects of the USDA plan. American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said, "Secretary Perdue's action to create an undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs is good news for farmers and ranchers, and assures that exports will receive daily attention at the USDA."

"We know that there are other important changes coming to the department as part of a larger reorganization effort," Duvall said. "We look forward to receiving and reviewing details of that plan, as well as the effect it will have on America's farmers, ranchers and farm communities."

There was more concern about another element in the restructuring plan that would eliminate the undersecretary for Rural Development and instead become an agency reporting directly to Perdue. USDA stated this would "elevate" the agency's status, but groups that focus heavily on rural development issues do not see the loss of an undersecretary position as an elevation in status. The Center for Rural Affairs stated the change would be "removing the position of the most significant rural advocate within USDA. Rural America stands to suffer as a result."

Another group, the National Rural Housing Coalition, also criticized the plan to remove the rural development undersecretary, particularly given the Trump administration's push to cut several rural development programs.

"Understanding these facts, the commentary from Trump administration's USDA surrounding the elimination of the undersecretary position and statements that this plan would elevate Rural Development is a clear feint to quell the very communities that have come out in support of the administration. It will absolutely lead to a downgrade in the position of already burdened rural communities in need of development and revitalization," said Bob Rapoza, president of Rapoza Associates and executive director of the housing coalition.

Perdue is scheduled to testify before the House Agriculture Committee next Wednesday about the state of the rural economy. Lawmakers will likely have several questions about USDA's reorganization plan as well.

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom contributed to this report.

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Chris Clayton