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Deputy Ag Secretary says USDA not staffing up

DANIEL LOOKER 02/27/2014 @ 5:37pm Business Editor

USDA's Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Krysta Harden, whose parents still farm in Camilla, Georgia, got a standing ovation from old friends at the American Soybean Association at the Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas Thursday -- and questions about how local Farm Service Agency offices will implement one of the most complicated farm programs passed by Congress.

"I would be dishonest, frankly, if I promised a lot of additional staff," Harden said in response to an ASA member's question.

Harden, who also met with the National Corn Growers Association and the National Association of Wheat Growers Thursday, reminded listeners that many Americans want smaller federal government. And they've gotten that at USDA. The agency has a budget that's about $1 billion smaller than it was in 2009 and its staff is already lean.

"I just want to remind you that we're a smaller place than we used to be, by design," she said.

Harden started working for USDA in 2009 and was responsible for putting some 2008 programs into effect. And as Congress was working to finally pass a farm bill this year, USDA wasn't just waiting.

"We have been preparing for this, getting ready for the things that will be coming at us," Harden said.

"This process is going to be done in a careful, systematic way," she told the Corn Growers earlier. "I want to make sure that as we look at this farm bill…that it is implemented in a way that makes sense to all of you"

Harden is considered a friend of the farm groups. Before joining USDA, she was the CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts, and before that, worked for a lobbying firm tied to ASA. But that doesn't mean farm group leaders don't see their local FSA offices as a potential bottleneck.

When asked by Agriculture.com if he is concerned about that, ASA's first vice president, Wade Cowan of Brownfield, Texas replied, "The short answer, in West Texas, I can tell you is an absolute yes."

Cowan's county FSA office is responsible for 300,000 acres of dryland and another 300,000 acres of irrigated land, he said. "We're down to three ladies in that office."

"You're dealing with a lot of pressure and I would hope they could at least get temporary help," Cowan said.

Other USDA agencies will also be involved in determining county-level yields, which will affect several new programs offered under the farm bill.

Cowan's own farm is a good example of the complexity facing USDA. On his own 1,500 acres, which includes 900 under irrigation, he grows cotton, guart, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and grain sorghum. Cotton has its own program, guar (used in foods and oil industry franking) doesn't, and he can enroll each of the other program crops in either the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program or Price Loss Coverage.

As Harden told ASA members, the commodity title of the new farm bill has "probably the most complicated changes in recent history."

Harden will hold a public meeting this Monday in Washington to seek suggestions on how to put the new law into effect. And tomorrow Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be at the Commodity Classic to share more details on which farm bill programs will get top priority.

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