Wait times at local Farm Service Agency offices should improve as U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue heeded U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s (ND-D) recommendation to increase staffing in six southwest North Dakota counties. The six counties are some of the hardest hit by the drought and include: Bowman, Golden Valley, Hettinger, McHenry, Mountrail, and Stark counties.
The approval was just one of four requests made by Heitkamp in a letter to Perdue that outlined a few things USDA could do to help struggling producers.
By Cole Benz
“We were able to make the request, and get the result,” she said. “Hopefully that will relieve some of the workload.”
The other request that was approved recently was the opening of more Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for more haying and grazing. Heitkamp said with most of the CRP land is now open.
“As time was going on and there was a reduction in moisture,” she said. “The value of that opportunity was diminishing.”
Heitkamp cited the opening of the CRP land as a reason the FSA offices needed the extra help. During a meeting in Bowman—that saw ranchers from all over the region attend—a big concern she heard was in regards to the wait time it can take to get assistance approved. Some producers would have to wait weeks, or months, just to get an appointment to fill out the necessary paperwork to utilize some of these assistant programs; and in a drought-stricken season, time can be critical. Heitkamp said the staffing in the local offices has been a critical issue for years, and told The Herald that this situation is another reminder of how important it is to staff the FSA offices.
So each of the six counties will be given one extra staff member to help with the workload. But if they need more, Heitkamp said “we’ll beg for more.” The extra staff should remain in the offices for as long as the demand for the help is there.
This change is temporary, and not a part of President Donald Trump’s initial 2018 proposed budget that was released in March. In that budget—which called for a 21 percent decrease to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—called for “reduced staffing in USDA’s service center agencies to streamline county office operations.”
But in the appropriations bill that just came out of subcommittee, there is a restriction and a moratorium on closing offices.
“I want to look that in greater detail because you can keep one person, [but] that doesn’t help you very much,” she said. “We’ve been fighting the closing and really the elimination of staffing within Farm Service Agency.”
Heitkamp told The Herald that as a matter of record that “the administration budget for agriculture was horrible.”
“If we fund these programs, they’re going to administer that funding,” she said.
Heitkamp said that was a concern among producers, that they would fund it but the money won’t be used in the directed way.
The remaining two requests Heitkamp made to Perdue include an increase in certainty for farmers in ranchers by giving them written assurances “detailing estimated amounts and delivery times to farmers and ranchers receiving payments from disaster programs.” This would give producers something tangible to begin financial planning for next season. The other request was to improve the “accuracy of U.S. Drought Monitor and Pasture Rangeland Forage reports so drought-stricken areas can access needed assistance.” This would allow producers to get the proper rainfall insurance assistance.
Heitkamp said that they make calls to Perdue’s office regularly to push these requests through.
“Everyday we think about what more we can do,” Heitkamp said. “Very early we opened our webpage, that’s a place where people an provide a lot of good suggestions and good ideas…we’re always looking for more input.”