The Bush Administration plan to close more than 700 FSA County offices across the country is dead.
“But we still have challenges to administer FSA programs efficiently, professionally and in a timely manner,” said Teresa Lasseter, FSA Chief Administrator, during a keynote address recently at the North American Grain Congress in San Antonio, Texas.
She said recent legislation requires public meetings in any county where an FSA office closure is possible. “Closure also requires a 120-day notice from the Secretary of Agriculture,” she said.
Lasseter said the new marching orders for FSA should switch more control back to state FSA administrators. That's based on a January 13 memo, she said.
“State committees know their states,” Lasseter said. “They will review operations and make recommendations. Many will have to restructure because we have lost a lot of employees.”
She said restructuring is not a task she looks forward to. “But it is the responsibility of FSA to provide efficient service. So we have to look at how to restructure for tomorrow.”
Some county FSA offices, she said, have only one or two employees. Some have none. And 260 managers manage more than one office.
She said FSA does not have an overall plan for each state and every county. “And we have a budget we have to follow. State budgets today are not a lot less, but that means budgets are not more and we face costs, such as utilities, that we can't control. We don't expect big surprises with our budget but it is tight.”
She said some states need few changes. “Others require significant help. We face a long, drawn out process to review plans. That takes time but we have to start somewhere.”
She said a top priority would be upgrading FSA technology. “It is not up to date. Part of the new plan will be training employees and giving them the tools they need.”
She said other changes in FSA operations will include lowering initial advance payments to farmers to 40 percent in 2006 and 20 percent in 2007.
Lasseter recommended that farmers concerned about financing for the 2006 crop should get to FSA offices as soon as possible to review what programs might be available. “We have a loan programs, often considered the lender of last resort. Some farmers may qualify for that this year.”
She said increased production costs and low commodity prices will put a strain on many farmers' abilities to finance a crop. “Energy cost is 20 percent to 25 percent higher than it was a year ago. Fuel and fertilizer costs mean $5.3 billion out of American farmers' pockets. We have to develop strategies to help them. We can't lower costs but we can help identify the best steps to offset fuel and fertilizer use. She offered four recommendations.
Know your soil and don't assume that more fertilizer is better.
Investigate alternative nutrient sources.
Alter tillage practices.
Service equipment to make it run more efficiently.
She said long-term solutions include increasing production and use of ethanol and bio-diesel. “With diesel and gasoline costs between $2 and $3 a gallon, ethanol and bio-diesel become more attractive.”