Don’t expect it to be “business as usual” when you visit your county Farm Service Agency office to sign up for the provisions of the Agricultural Act of 2014 at the end of February or the end of March, FSA officials say.
Where county FSA employees have often gone out of their way to help farmers make decisions during previous farm bills that will not be the case this time, according to USDA officials speaking at the Mississippi Farm Bureau’s Winter Commodity Conference.
“I want y’all to keep two things in mind,” said Kristi Gill, agricultural program specialist for Mississippi with the Farm Service Agency office in Jackson. “One, don’t expect our county office staffs to tell you what to do when you come in the door as far as making these decisions. They just can’t do it. The other thing is don’t wait until the last minute.”
“The only thing I can add is that many of you know what the staffing situation is in our county FSA offices,” said Mike Sullivan, state FSA director for Mississippi. “You try to run your business with 33 percent less people or inputs than we had in 2009, and you’ll see what we’re up against.”
Sullivan and Ms. Gill were asked for their thoughts at the end of a 2014 Farm Bill Decisions Panel during the Farm Bureau meeting at its headquarters in Jackson. The panel focused on decision aid tools, the commodity market outlook and the cotton industry and crop industry perspectives. But the complexity of the new law was obviously on everyone’s mind.
“This is by far the most confusing farm bill and one of the most confusing pieces of legislation to ever come out of Congress,” said Sullivan. “It is a totally new game for all of us. I just ask that you bear with us. We will do everything we can to help you.”
'Do your homework'
Sullivan urged farmers to continue to attend the farm bill education sessions like the ones that are being held by the FSA, the Mississippi State University Cooperative Service and Commodity organizations such as the Mississippi Farm Bureau.
“Do your homework and use these decision aid tools,” he said. “You should get all your information together in front of you and try to make your decisions before you come see us to make things work more smoothly.”
Sullivan said county employees will not make suggestions as to producer courses of action regarding the farm bill. Unlike with previous farm bill signups, county FSA cannot advise growers about what they should do in 2015.
“We cannot make that decision for you simply because that is a financial decision that will affect you for the next five years or longer if we have an extension of this farm bill,” he said.
Sullivan was asked about the possibility that USDA might extend the signup deadlines as it has in the past when push came to shove in getting growers signed up for new farm programs.
“I know you want them to come in early, but if you come in on the last day, and there’s a long line and you can’t get all your business done, can they put their name on a ledger and schedule an appointment for later,” asked Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president and Washington editor for Informa Economics, who spoke earlier at the meeting.
No decision yet
“That decision has not been made yet,” said Sullivan. “As with everything we’ve done so far, we’re going to try in the agency to stick to these deadlines, and that’s why we’re urging everyone to come in early. Do the first steps first. Get your yields and your bases settled. I know there are some questions about the involvement of landowners in those.”
Farmers and landowners have until Feb. 27 to complete Base Acre Reallocation and Yield Updates if they desire to make changes. They have until March 31 to elect whether to sign up for Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) or Price Loss Coverage (PLC). They can enroll in those options between mid-April and June.
County FSA offices have become busier in recent weeks as growers have come into make base reallocations, yield updates and program elections included in the new farm bill. “There are a lot of questions coming in,” said Ms. Gill. “We know some of the answers, and some of the questions are still being figured out.”
Gill has traveled across the state, speaking at FSA, Mississippi State Extension and commodity group meetings since the first farm bill details were announced last fall. She and county FSA directors have learned “on the go” as farmers have tried to get a grasp on all of the options and different situations confronting them in the new law.
“Kristi has been a trooper out there with us at a lot of meetings, and we just turn the floor over to her and let her answer all the hard questions,” said Dr. Keith Coble, professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University, who served as moderator of the Farm Bill Decisions Panel at the Farm Bureau meeting.
Besides being urged to visit their county FSA offices sooner rather than later, farmers were advised get with their crop insurance agent to review their insurance coverage options available under the new law and through the federal crop insurance program.
“It is critical that you sit down with your crop insurance agent and see how these different coverages affect you and your operation,” said Michael Rochelle, assistant director of member services for the National Cotton Council. “This isn’t like going in to sign up for CAT coverage so you can be eligible for farm programs. It is much more complicated than that.”