Farmers Rage Against the Dying of the 'County Office'

Mark Nunnery of DeWitt County, Ill., scorns as
Mark Nunnery of DeWitt County, Ill., scorns as "government bull" its reasons for closing Farm Service Agency offices. (By Dan Morgan -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

CLINTON, Ill. -- DeWitt County farmer Mark Nunnery has been too busy harvesting his 1,140 acres of corn and soybeans this month to think about much else, but when his crops are in he's planning to join a spreading prairie rebellion.

Farmers are famously resistant to change, and that goes for a recently announced U.S. Department of Agriculture plan to close as many as 713 of the 2,351 county offices of the Farm Service Agency.

DeWitt County's FSA office, the local link between farmers and a bewildering web of government farm programs, is one of 43 in Illinois under consideration for consolidation with the FSA office in an adjacent county. It's a terrible idea in the view of Nunnery, one of three farmer-elected committeemen who oversee the FSA office.

"Consolidation? That's government bull. They're closing offices," he said as he put his air-conditioned combine in neutral during a break from cutting 60 acres of soybeans. "There will be a lot of upset people in this county if that office closes."

The institution of the USDA "county office" dates to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal set up a far-reaching program of loans, payments and production controls to pull millions of farmers out of the Depression. A nearby farm office was essential in rural areas with poor communications and such substandard roads it could take half a day to travel 25 miles.

Since then the number of full-time commercial farmers has dwindled to a few hundred thousand. Producers operate across county and even state lines, aided by computers, high-tech gadgetry and the world's finest transportation network.

More than 400 FSA offices have two or fewer employees, and 1,603 are located within 30 miles of another office. Some computers are of 1980s vintage, and most farmers still fill out application forms for loans and government payments by hand.

"Agriculture has changed, and rural America has changed," said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.

The department's "FSA Tomorrow" plan would streamline services, upgrade the training of FSA employees and bring the country's farmers into the Internet age.

"We have to modernize," said Steven Connelly, deputy assistant administrator for farm programs. Without putting all of FSA on a Web-based system, he said, the agency will be handicapped in adapting to changes in farm programs in a new farm bill due in 2007.

But the move has triggered a surprisingly sharp backlash in rural communities fighting for economic survival.

Combining DeWitt County's FSA operations with those of a neighboring county could mean "longer lines and more work on the Internet," according to DeWitt's FSA director, Murl Kimmel. Many of the 1,400 to 1,500 farmers in the county are 60 or older and depend on hands-on help to decipher the turns of farm programs, he said.

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