SALEM, Ohio – Over the next six weeks, Ohio’s Farm Service Agency will take a hard look at each of its 72 county offices and decide which 28 need to go.
Ohio is not alone. Under USDA’s order, 731 of the 2,351 offices across the country will close.
In Pennsylvania, that means 14 of 46 offices and in West Virginia it means 13 of 31 offices.
USDA released its plan, called FSA Tomorrow, to state executive directors in late September and said they must make their closure recommendations by Nov. 15.
Efficiency. It’s going to make the remaining offices more efficient, said Ohio Executive Director Larry Adams.
Many county offices have only two employees, he said, and these small offices are strapped.
If they consolidate with other county offices, the employees will be able to specialize in certain areas such as conservation, and they’ll have more time to spend with the farmers, Adams said.
He said he doesn’t expect widespread employee cuts. The point is to consolidate the offices, he said, so there are more people in them to help the farmers.
In the works. Erie and Huron County Executive Director Diana Strouse knows this firsthand.
Ever since she started with Farm Service Agency in 1988, it has been talking about merging Erie County’s office with Huron County, she said.
The two offices are 20 miles apart and in Erie County there are just two full-time employees.
Although the proposal hasn’t been approved yet, Adams said it would save $15,000 a year and put five employees in the office.
“No one wants to close but in this case, the service would improve,” Strouse said on a day she was managing the Erie County office alone. “There would be more travel for farmers but when they got [to the office], there would actually be people there to help.”
First consideration. Fifty-six Ohio county offices are within 30 miles of each other or have less than three employees, so these will be reviewed first, Adams said.
“But all counties are on the table right now,” he said.
An in-house committee will look at each office, and evaluate it based on certain criteria, Adams said. These include distance from other offices, highway conditions, office workload, and communications, such as accessibility to Internet lines.
Each state must submit its recommendations by Nov. 15. Once approved by USDA, the state will have nine months to complete the consolidations, Adams said.
Losing out? You hate to lose your identity but mergers and changes happen, said Howard Schuster, Erie County’s committee chairman.
When he told farmers in his area about his county’s possible consolidation, only a few had a problem with traveling farther away, he said.
The money that would be saved and the extra service provided would make it worth it, said Schuster, a grain farmer in Berlin Heights, Ohio.
The key is to match counties that have similar farming practices, he said.
Online advice. Adams acknowledges that some farmers will have to travel farther to get to the offices, but he said using the Internet is another option.
Farmers can sign up for most programs online, he said. They just make one trip to the office to get an identification number and then they can do it all from home, he said.
And sometimes, it works smoother this way.
For example, when farmers sign up for Loan Deficiency Payments, the money can be in the bank within 48 hours, he said. But when they go through the office, it can take up to 30 days or longer.
Elsewhere. Under the USDA’s plan, just six states will be required to close more offices than Ohio.
These include: Texas (70 offices), Georgia (39), Kentucky (39), Indiana (36), Mississippi (33), and Kansas (29). Tennessee will also have to close 28.
In addition, Adams said there are 15 Ohio offices that have teams specializing in farm loans. In November when he sends his proposal to Washington, he’ll also have to recommend which six of these should be cut, he said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)