The firestorm that erupted in some counties in the past when FSA attempted or did close a county FSA office did not happen this time when three Indiana offices are on the proposed closing list. "Farmers seem to get it," Julia Wickard says. "Something must be done because of the huge national debt."
Wickard is state FSA director. FSA was required to hold a meeting after Secretary Vilsack announced the potential closing list January 9 in each of the three counties that would be affected.
About 80 people attended the meeting in Lake County, 50 in Morgan County and 30 in St. Joseph County, she notes. If the plan goes forward as it is now, Lake County would be folded into Porter County, Morgan County's records would go to Monroe County, and St. Joseph County producer records would be moved to Marshall County.
"Producers had some legitimate concerns, and we tried to address them," Wickard says. "We know that parking is currently a problem at the Monroe County FSAS office, and that would have to be addressed.
Some producers in Lake County said it wouldn't be convenient because the office is now in Crown Point, and if approved, they would go to Valparaiso. One option might be to consider an office somewhere in between, say at Hebron. There is precedent for that in Indiana already. When Shelby and Rush County were combined, a new office was located at Manilla on the county lines.
Wickard is simply carrying out orders from Washington. She did not pick these three counties. "Morgan and Lake are on the list because they only had two employees and were within 20 miles of another USDA office," she explains. "With St. Joseph, even though it's a large agricultural county, it was a timing issue. When they made decisions, there were actually no permanent staff in the office due to retirements. The office was being manned without full-time employees."
Overall, Wickard feels that Indiana fared reasonably well in the proposed cuts. Nationwide, 131 offices in 32 states were proposed for closing. Some 174 employees are imp acted nationwide. In Indiana, only four employees are impacted, and they would have the opportunity to move to the new county, working under a different office head than before.
"The cuts aren't just in FSA," Wickard says. "That makes it more palatable to accept. They are across the board in other USDA agencies as well."
Vilslack has 90 days from January 9 to move forward with the plan, Wickard notes. Comments from the hearings will be considered before final decisions are made. If the Secretary decides to go ahead with the plan as proposed, the changes in the three Indiana counties affected would likely happen this summer.
Producers who feel it would be more convenient to have their records at another FSA office if these closures occur would have the opportunity to do so, Wickard says. It's been a long-standing practice that a producer could move his records if he could show that it was more convenient for him to access another office, even though the land itself fell under the jurisdiction of another office.