Closure of 22 Minnesota FSA offices is discussed
WILLMAR -- The Chippewa County Farm Service Agency office in Montevideo is one of 35 Farm Service Agency offices in Minnesota that is being reviewed for possible closure.
It's expected that 22 of Minnesota's 79 existing offices will be closed within the next nine months. Besides Chippewa County, Farm Service Agency offices in Pope, McLeod, Benton and Douglas counties are also on the list, which was revealed to county directors during a conference call Monday afternoon by Minnesota Farm Service Agency Executive Director John Monson.
"We're up for review, but we don't know what it means yet," said Leon Johnson, executive director of the Chippewa County FSA office. The six employees in the office, he said, are "nervous" and "concerned" about the future of their jobs.
His job, however, is the most vulnerable one in the office.
"I haven't hit the panic button yet," said Johnson, who's worked for the Farm Service Agency for 10 years, including seven years in Chippewa County. The closures are part of a consolidation plan called "FSA Tomorrow" that's being directed from the national Farm Service Agency office in Washington, D.C.
Nationwide, 713 (or 30 percent) of the existing 2,351 FSA offices are slated for closure as a way to save money by reducing "brick and mortar" expenses, said Monson in a telephone interview Monday. In Minnesota, 28 percent of the offices will be closed.
The money that's saved will be used to upgrade an old computer system in Farm Service Agency offices in all 50 states and to improve services by putting staff where there's work to do. The offices on the preliminary list got there by using a formula that includes the workload and the distance between FSA offices.
The Chippewa County office serves 450 farmers. The next closest Farm Service Agency office is in Clarkfield, 15 miles away, said Johnson, who said he'll be asked to provide information to "justify" keeping the office open.
"We feel for our counterparts who are on the list," said Wes Nelson, executive director of the Kandiyohi County FSA office in Willmar. "We are not listed as one of the 35 they're looking at this time," he said, but it's likely all counties in the region will be reviewed to some extent before the list of closures is finalized.
While the consolidation is designed to save money, improve computer technology and improve services, Nelson said farmers who are used to doing business in their own counties will have to drive farther.
Other than county executive directors, the consolidation isn't expected to decrease staff numbers in Minnesota, but those employees may be working in the next county, said Monson. FSA offices have been understaffed for years, he said, which has resulted in farmers not necessarily receiving the best service all the time.
Once offices are consolidated, farmers will be able to "open enroll" and choose which county they want to do business in, said Monson. That will reduce the chances of farmers having to drive long distances to file necessary paperwork for participating in the government's agricultural programs.
Monson, who was a county FSA director before taking the state's top job, said the process of reviewing county offices will be difficult. He also said the review will likely be expanded beyond the preliminary list of 35 counties,
The people he broke the news to Monday are more than just co-workers. "These are my friends. They are my family here," said Monson. "This is a hard, hard day."
Monson said he will make the process as "transparent" as possible by getting input from all levels. "I'm not smart enough to do this by myself," he said.
Monson said the state's 86,000 farmers that use the Farm Service Agency should contact their county FSA committees, which will be tapped to provide input into the decision-making process, as will the county office staff.
He said he wants the Minnesota plan to save money, sustain customer services and reduce the impact to employees and customers as much as possible.
The plan must be submitted by Nov. 15. After that, it will go through the "political grinder," he said. "We'll see how it shakes out." A proposal in the 1990s to trim the FSA was stopped by congressional action.