FSA public forum draws in more than 120 local farmers

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Many of the 120 or so people, mostly local farmers, who attended last week’s public forum to discuss the National Farm Service Agency’s proposal to close the Itawamba County FSA office had questions about the decision, but few left with satisfying answers when the whole thing was over.

During the course of the two hour meeting, held last Tuesday, Jan. 24, in Peppertown, Mississippi’s Executive Director of the Farm Service Agency Michael Sullivan attempted to answer the dozen or so questions and concerns presented to him, but said there was little specific information he could give out.

In essence, he stuck to the same mantra:

“We’re going to make every effort to make sure the core mission of this agency is fulfilled,” he said. “We’re going to serve the farmers and landowners of these counties as we always have.”

The meeting commenced with a brief introduction and summary of why 131 FSA offices nationwide are proposed to be closed. In Mississippi, the Itawamba County FSA office is one of eight scheduled for closing.

As with most everything during threadbare economic times, the decision comes down to money.

“Even with [previous] cuts, the FSA simply cannot maintain the number of offices we currently have open,” Sullivan said. “These decisions have not happened overnight … Before we got to this point, we were trying everything we could to cut costs … to live within our means.”

He added that FSA is in such dire straits that the number of proposed closings could have easily been doubled. Still, he continued to stress that the decision to close so many offices was not featherlight.

“We certainly understand the impact these kinds of consolidation efforts have on a community,” Sullivan added. “You are losing something from the community that’s been there for generations. Those kinds of things have been taken into consideration.

“The FSA is still in the very early stages of this process,” he added. “This is a proposal … That’s why we’re having this public listening session — to get views from the public.”

Last month, the USDA, which oversees the FSA, said it plans to close 11 offices in Mississippi as part of a $150 million cost-cutting measure that includes 259 closures nationwide.

The decision as to which offices will close will be finalized by the Secretary of Agriculture in less than 90 days.

The proposed closing is a result of both budget and staff reductions within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under which the FSA falls. According to the press release, the FSA can no longer financially support every existing county office.

In total, the Farm Service Agency has more than 2,346 state and county offices. The group’s primary function is to provide financial assistance to local farmers through various federal subsidiary programs.

In order to determine which offices are to be shut, the national office looked to the 2008 Farm Bill, which specifically highlights how offices are to be selected for closing.

First, the office must be within a 20 mile radius of another FSA office. Itawamba County’s office is 19.85 miles away from Lee County’s. If the proposed closing takes place, the latter office will absorb Itawamba County’s.

Second, the office must have two or fewer employees. Itawamba County’s office currently operates with two, but a point of contention with many of the local farmers present was that, up until about two years ago, the office had three employees. After one of the three retired, an FSA money-saving policy of not filling the positions of retirees left the office short-handed and placed it squarely in the running for being closed.

Numerous individuals and groups expressed their disapproval of the proposed closing, including the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors, Fulton Board of Aldermen, the local FSA committee and the Itawamba County Farm Bureau, represented by former supervisor Danny Holley.

“Closing our office would result in the largest workload in the state,” Holley said, speaking on behalf of the local Farm Bureau. “It will affect both Itawamba and Lee counties.”

Holley also noted that crossing the Tombigbee Waterway — the only way to drive from east Itawamba County to Tupelo — would make it hard for farmers to make the trip.

The Itawamba County branch of the FSA covers approximately 3,000 farms and services more than 2,000 clients. The office operates with only two employees.

It was noted that the number of farmers served in Itawamba and Lee counties is about equal, despite the latter’s higher population.

“I wonder if there aren’t other counties in this state that have a lesser agricultural workload than Itawamba County. I’m told that there are,” local farmer Homer Wilson said. “I wish this would be taken into consideration.”

Sullivan responded that the aforementioned criteria for selecting offices to close was built into the 2008 Farm Bill. He said these rules were, essentially, what the Secretary of Agriculture will have to go by.

“Every county is the same in the eyes of the Farm Bill,” he said.

But Second District Supervisor Ike Johnson said he believes shutting down offices in high-producing counties like Itawamba County shows a distinct lack of concern from the national group and believes such actions will discourage future generations of farmers.

“We need this office in our county for future generations,” Johnson said. “I feel like we’re being brushed off.”

Speaking again, Holley suggested those in attendance band together and write in to their congressmen.

“If it comes from the government, it doesn’t make sense; this doesn’t make sense,” Holley said. “We the people can change it. We’re all concerned about what will happen when the office closes; I say, let’s stop it from closing.”

Sullivan said that expressing their concerns to the powers that be certainly couldn’t hurt, but he also couldn’t promise it would help sway the decision. The crowd at the public forum was the largest he had seen so far, which he called “telling.”

“Whether it can change anything or not, I don’t know,” Sullivan said. “But it is important that you all came here … The attendance here shows the amount of concern.”

adam.armour@journalinc.com