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.
Kimmel and his three employees provide a level of retail service that has all but disappeared from most other operations of the federal government.
Early this month, one employee was laboriously processing dozens of written applications for "loan deficiency payments," filed by farmers taking advantage of a wide gap between corn prices and the government's corn support price. In some cases, local FSA officials with tape measures visit farms to verify the amount of corn claimed to be in storage bins.
When floodwater and ice damaged a farmer's fence earlier this year, Kimmel visited the location to verify the damage and then helped prepare a request for a grant of several thousand dollars under the Emergency Conservation Program.
The office is also charged with the annual review of hundreds of "farm operating plans," which are required for participation in government subsidy programs.
Kimmel's office is supervised by a farmer-elected county committee, to which Nunnery won election three years ago. "We try to see that the government's money is used wisely and for the purpose for which it was intended," said Nunnery, who is running for reelection this year.
"We know if someone is actively engaged in farming because he's probably a neighbor," he said.
The official announcement of the proposed closures was made Sept. 23, infuriating farm groups and some members of Congress. On the same day, FSA Administrator James R. Little announced his resignation after 41/2 years on the job. He expressed support for the modernization.
But the 8,000-member National Association of Farmer Elected Committees (NAFEC), in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, has expressed "disappointment" with the lack of consultation. "It's not going to fly," said NAFEC President Roger Richardson, who farms 3,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in three counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
FSA has 3,787 employees in Washington and state capitals. Another 9,145 county FSA employees also receive federal paychecks. The agency has an annual budget of $1.2 billion to manage about $20 billion a year in farm program payments to producers.
Penn said last week that he does not expect a net reduction in FSA employees. But the National Association of Farm Service Agency County Office Employees (NASCOE) is working on a "plan of action." It will include congressional visits and the dissemination of "talking points" to refute USDA arguments for office closures.
One recent e-mail, sent by a program technician in an Illinois FSA office, calls for "employees, county committees, Farm Bureau, commodity groups" and others to contact members of the state congressional delegation, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Farm-state lawmakers have already thrown down a major obstacle to the USDA plan. Last month, Sens. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) pushed through an amendment to an agriculture spending bill preventing USDA from closing offices until the department performs a thorough analysis of the impact. House and Senate negotiators have not decided whether to include the provision in the compromise version of the bill.
In a statement to members of NASCOE, President Daniel L. Root said it was unclear if the amendment would delay or stop the process. "Hopefully it will allow not only NASCOE but the farmers, ranchers and lenders we serve, the rural communities we all live in and Congress the time needed to be involved in the process, if closings are inevitable."