U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says his agency will evaluate its network of Farm Service Agency offices, but does not plan to close any of those offices this year.
“We need to modernize our system and there are a couple of reasons for that,” Vilsack says. “Number one: we have 20 percent fewer workers than we did several years ago. The budget that I’m working with at USDA is now $1 billion less than it was when I became secretary in terms of the operating budget, so with a 20 percent reduction in workforce, you obviously have to realign where folks work and what they do.”
As of today, 30 Farm Service Agency offices do not have an employee assigned to work there and over a hundred other FSA offices have just one full-time employee.
“So what we are suggesting is, over time, fewer offices but better offices,” Vilsack says. “We’re doing right now a work study to try to determine exactly where the work is being done, to make sure that we have adequate people doing the work that needs to be done and then in 2015 we will probably suggest a realignment of some of the offices and a strengthening of those offices with additional investments.”
The realignment could create a three-tiered system, with central offices where supervisors are stationed, branch offices with more employees and satellite offices were farmers could set up appointments for face-to-face meetings with Farm Service Agency staff. Vilsack says with future upgrades to the agency’s computer systems, farmers may be able to access their records electronically.
“If they have access to broadband, they’ll be able to access their records from home,” Vilsack says. “That will change the relationship they have with FSA offices.”
There are more than 2300 Farm Service Agency offices around the country and those offices serve as the primary distribution point for all federal farm programs. There are currently 97 FSA offices in Iowa.
Vilsack made his comments this past weekend during Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program. Vilsack was asked about the controversial comments Congressman Bruce Braley made about Senator Chuck Grassley. During a speech to a group of Texas lawyers, Braley warned Grassley — a farmer who isn’t a lawyer — could be the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate.
“I think Congressman Braley has hit the nail on the head when he said: ‘Sometimes people say things they regret’ and I’m sure he regrets it. I think it was appropriate for him to go to Senator Grassley and apologize personally,” Vilsack said. “Obviously I have profound respect for both Congressman Braley and Senator Grassley and I think Senator Grassley’s career in the Senate obviously makes him qualified to serve in any capacity on any committee in the Senate.”
Vilsack served two terms as Iowa’s governor. He became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in January of 2009.