The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Vilsack announces office closures, retirements


Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
“The time has come to get our country’s fiscal house in order,” Vilsack said, noting that this involves “tough calls, tough choices.”

Congress has cut USDA’s discretionary operating budget by more than $3 billion, roughly 12 percent, since 2010 and more cuts are anticipated as efforts to reduce the federal deficit continue, he said.

“The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago,” said Vilsack. “We must innovate, modernize, and be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars."

At a news conference, Vilsack likened the closures, retirements and other cost-saving plans to the Defense Department's announcement last week that it would cut spending. But he added that the cuts were about the cost of operations, not policy.

In addition to the office closures, Vilsack noted, nearly 7,000 USDA employees have retired on their own or taken programs to encourage them to retire early in the last 15 months. The retirements have allowed USDA flexibility to eliminate positions or restructure positions and to hire people at lower pay rates than before, Vilsack noted.

Vilsack said total USDA employment is now 95,000 to 100,000 employees. That figure includes the U.S. Forest Service, which is the largest employment division of USDA.

The cuts to the county FSA offices, which farmers visit to sign up for farm programs and disaster payments, are always controversial and previous attempts have generated vigorous opposition in Congress and sometimes stopped the closures.

Vilsack said he had called key Congressional farm leaders of both parties to warn that the closures were coming. He also said he had called Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and had attemted to reach Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because he knew that they would be concerned about service to minority farmers.

Vilsack also said USDA would hold hearings on the FSA office closures as required by law. He acknowledged that although there may be opposition to the closures, he does not believe it will be as strong as in the past because the closures are taking place "in a little different context" because there has been so much discussion about the need to cut the federal deficit.

Of the 131 FSA offices to be closed, 35 currently have no employees, while the rest have either one or two employees and are within 20 miles of another FSA office. The work of these offices will be assigned to the adjoining county office, and personnel given the opportunity to transfer as well, he said.

“Our choice was either to maintain these offices or reduce our effort at improved technology to better serve producers and furlough workers, disrupting service to many, many people,” he said.

“We’ve invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours in an effort to get technology that should allow us to better serve producers with reduced staff. When fully operational, it will allow farmers and ranchers to access many of FSA’s programs online at home and at convenient times."

The FSA closings and consolidations will begin taking place over the late winter and spring, with the goal to finish consolidation by July. All the other agencies, except for Food Safety district offices, aim to close facilities by the end of September.

The foreign offices to be closed are the Foreign Agricultural Service posts in Stockholm and Damascus and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service offices in Rangoon, Phnom Penh, Bogota, Colombia, Jakarta, and Vientiane.

Vilsack said the Foreign Agricultural Service had been spared large cuts because its work load has increased as the number of free-trade agreements had increased.

The work in the closed foreign APHIS offices will be performed elsewhere, he said.

The office closures are part of a “blueprint for stronger service” that was based on a department-wide review of operations conducted as part of an administration-wide “Campaign to Cut Waste” that was launched by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Vilsack said.

When fully implemented, the closures, along with other recommended changes such as consolidating 700 cell phone plans into 10, will provide efficiencies valued at about $150 million a year, Vilsack said.

On previous occasions, Vilsack has said it would be difficult for USDA to provide the same level of service with a smaller staff and fewer offices, but today he projected a more positive attitude.

“The ultimate goal of this administrative service effort will be the optimal use of our people, better results for those we serve, and the more effective use of tax dollars for the benefit of taxpayers,” he said.

Summary of USDA closures and consolidations

  • Farm Service Agency (FSA): Consolidate 131 county offices in 32 states; more than 2,100 FSA offices remain throughout the United States.
  • Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS): Close two country offices; more than 95 FAS offices remain throughout the world.
  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS): Close 15 APHIS offices in 11 states and five APHIS offices in five foreign countries; more than 560 APHIS offices remain throughout the United States and 55 remain throughout the world.
  • Rural Development (RD): Close 43 area and sub offices in 17 states and U.S. territories; approximately 450 RD offices remain throughout the United States.
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS): Close 24 soil survey offices in 21 states; more than 2,800 NRCS offices remain throughout the United States.
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS): Close five district offices in five states; 10 district offices remain throughout the United States.
  • Agricultural Research Service (ARS): Close 12 programs at 10 locations; more than 240 programs remain throughout the United States.
  • Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNCS): Close 31 field offices in 28 states; 32 FNCS offices will remain throughout the United States.

Map and Complete List of Impacted Offices by State
Secretary Vilsack's Prepared Remarks on "Blueprint for Stronger Service"

Fact Sheets