$100 million is a lot of money, even by government standards. But, by the time it’s all said and done, there’s one $100 million amount that farmers will more than likely agree was money well spent.
This $100 million is the money Congress provided in the Agricultural Act of 2014 to help USDA get the word out to farmers about the many new provisions in the 2014 farm bill and how they differ from those of the 2008 law.
Using those funds, USDA has held more than 2,000 farm bill education meetings since August. Some were training sessions for FSA county office employees, but the majority were meetings held by county FSA directors to introduce the new insurance-oriented Title I safety net programs to farmers.
USDA also contracted with Texas A&M University’s Agriculture and Food Policy Center, the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute and the University of Illinois to develop decision aid software that allows producers to plug in their information and determine how different farm bill decisions will impact them.
Land-grant university personnel are working with farmers on how to use the new software.
“Many farmers have just finished harvest, and now they’re turning their attention to the farm bill,” says Val Dolcini, administrator of the Farm Service Agency. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure they have all the information they need to make good decisions.”
Dolcini, interviewed by telephone from Nashville, Tenn., where he was attending a national FSA employee farm bill training conference, agreed with an oft-repeated expression that it will take more than one meeting for many producers to fully understand the many options available under the Agricultural Act of 2014.
“It is complicated, and I think many farmers may need to hear the information from more than one source,” said Dolcini, who served as state executive director of the California Farm Service Agency before assuming the top FSA post in September. “That’s why we have partnered with the land-grant universities at most of our farm bill education meetings.”
Dolcini said FSA employees have overcome a number of challenges since President Obama signed the 2014 law in February, working through a number of issues to get to the point where they are now signing up farmers for the new programs.
“Our first step was to roll out the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which was designed to help producers who had experienced livestock losses from droughts, floods and blizzards,” said Dolcini. “Then, in September, we launched the Dairy Margin Protection Program to provide help for dairy farmers.” (Dolcini visited a dairy farm in Orlinda, Tenn., to discuss the MPP-D program while in Tennessee.)
Farm Service Agency personnel just completed the signup for the Cotton Transition Assistance Program, a program that will provide about 5 cents per pound to producers who will not receive a direct payment or insurance payment in 2014.
And since Sept. 29, they have been working with landowners on updating yield history or reallocating base acres and, since Nov. 17, signing farmers up for the Agricultural Risk Coverage or ARC or the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs. Signup for updating yields or reallocating base acres ends Feb. 27, 2015 and for ARC or PLC ends March 31, 2015.
“These are very serious decisions for farmers,” said Dolcini. “When growers sign up for ARC or PLC, they’re committing their operations to those programs from 2014 to 2018. Our county FSA employees cannot provide advice to growers on what they should do, but they will provide all the assistance they can.”
Enrollment in the new, complicated farm bill comes at a time when FSA and USDA have fewer full-time employees (FTEs) and reduced funding for general operations. As a result, FSA has been consolidating county offices and reducing FTEs where possible. Tennessee, for example, now has 59 county offices instead of an office in each of its 95 counties.
“We’ve been able to make good use of temporary employees to stay on schedule for farm bill implementation,” said Dolcini. “We’re having them do some of the paperwork and freeing up full-time employees to handle the more complicated tasks and work with farmers.
“I won’t say it hasn’t been challenging, but we have a great group of employees, and they’ve been working very hard to keep us on schedule.”
For more information on the remaining deadlines for signing up for 2014 farm bill programs, see http://www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/printapp?fileName=nr_20141002_rel_0161.html&newsType=newsrel