By Nancy Allen
The Mercer County Farm Service Agency (FSA) office has reduced staff hours and cut some services in recent weeks after an unexpected cut in state funding.
Speaking to a group of about 25 people Tuesday during the first Mercer County agriculture breakfast, Chris Gibbs, executive director of the local FSA office, called the current budget situation a "crisis" and the worst he has seen in his 20 years with the department.
"In my 20 years with USDA I've not seen the folks who control the money bluff as long as they have this year," Gibbs said. "They called up and literally took 16 percent of FSA's budget back."
Gibbs explained that he and other state FSA executive directors were told last April the amount of funds they had to work with for the fiscal year. Then roughly two weeks ago, they were told 16 percent ($276,000) of the state FSA's temporary employee funds would be cut due to a miscalculation in the original allocation from the budget division in Washington. At the same time, FSA executive directors also were informed that 11 percent in state travel funds ($43,000) would be cut.
The latest round of cuts comes after state travel funds already were cut once and then later reinstated in April. Temporary employee funds are used to pay field reporters and nonregular employees to complete field work and administrative duties.
Travel funds are used primarily to pay field reporters who travel to individual farms to take measurements required to install conservation practices and process loan deficiency payments. They also are used to do spot checks of farms to ensure compliance with various FSA programs and attend training sessions and meetings. As a result of the cut, the Mercer County FSA office has just $252 left for travel through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Since the funds were cut, Gibbs has been doing field work, which used to be done by three part-time field reporters, and county FSA committee meetings have been reduced from 11 hours a month to four. The locally-elected, three-member committee is responsible for administering federal farm programs in the county.
"What really hurts is the restriction on time and travel. The county committees are the backbone of the FSA service. They are locally-elected folks and are responsible that farm programs are administered fairly, equitably and in a timely manner," Gibbs said. "For those folks to not be allowed to do their jobs because of budget is inexcusable."
Gibbs said in all other years since he has been the county executive director (1988), the funds have materialized. A good deal of the budgeting headache in the last four years also is that Congress continues to not finalize departmental budgets prior to Oct. 1, forcing local FSA offices to operate on continuing budgetary resolutions that last until June or July.
"Folks that need field services are going to be served," Gibbs said. "However they may not enjoy the timeliness they are used to."
The next Mercer County agriculture breakfast is Aug. 2 at 7:30 a.m. at the Mercer County Central Services Building in Celina. The meetings are open to the public.