Q&A: Richard Fordyce, Farm Service Agency Administrator

Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce was sworn into his current role in May 2018. He’s a fourth-generation farmer from Missouri.

In mid-September, he sat down with Digital Content Manager Natalina Sents for an exclusive interview.

The Farm Service Agency has the broadest mission area of the USDA agencies and is responsible for offering disaster assistance, farm loans, safety nets, and conservation programs.

SF: What are you most proud of in your time with USDA?

RF: Given some of the opportunities that were presented to us, I think we responded, as an agency and as a department, to provide support to farmers and ranchers across the country for a number of things, whether it was retaliatory tariffs, response to the COVID-19 pandemic, or response to disasters. From an agency standpoint, we’ve been extremely busy since I became administrator, due to the extenuating circumstances that were presented to us. I think our agency responded, certainly provided a lot of needed support for agriculture around the country. I think that’s probably the main thing.

SF: What do you see as FSA’s biggest opportunity to improve?

RF: We constantly are looking at opportunities to be able to provide that exceptional customer service that Secretary Perdue expects. We’ve done a number of things, some by planning, and some by necessity. With the pandemic, originally, all of our offices were working remotely. As we could, we started to open those offices back up using sound science and what was going on on the ground at that local county level.

We were able to access some technology. For example, we’re using box software, and a digital signature capability for us to bundle applications. The staff are putting the applications together. They’re helping the producer either over the phone or via email. Once the application is done, we’re able to email that to a producer. It’s very easy for them to electronically sign that. When that happens, it automatically goes back to the county office.

From a customer service perspective, again by necessity, I think in some cases we’ve been able to advance forward into this century with technology to interact with producers. We’re constantly looking at opportunities to improve not only our programs from a policy perspective, but improve our programs from a technology perspective.

This is a very large agency. We have 2,214 county offices, and over 10,000 employees that work on behalf of American agriculture supporting farmer and ranchers. To make those kinds of decisions and investments can take some time. There are a lot of steps that we have to go through to get that improvement, but we’re constantly looking at how we can improve that experience our customer has. How can we simplify processes? We continue to look at opportunities to do that.

Derecho damaged corn
Photo credit: Natalina Sents

SF: How does FSA determine if an event is big or severe enough for a new disaster program, versus time to rely on existing safety nets and programs that USDA already has in place?

RF: It’s kind of a team effort. Obviously, the secretary can make those determinations, and has on a number of occasions, working with the president and the administration.

We also work closely with congress. I’m thinking about our wildfire and hurricane indemnity program. We had two versions of that. Both of those came about by congressional action.

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, the majority of the funding for CFAP came through the CARES package. That was a congressional decision and funding came from congress.

The Market Facilitation Program was one that didn’t go through congressional action. That was initiated by the secretary and the department.

I think it depends on what the issue is, and who is kind of advocating for us to engage. We can do it a number of different ways. We have a good relationship, from a department standpoint, with congress. We don’t lobby congress, but we provide technical assistance. When they have ideas, they work with our staff to understand how’s the best way to implement this. It’s a positive relationship that we have working with congress when those are congressionally mandated programs.

SF: Some, including the Environmental Working Group and members of the House, are critical that FSA aid doesn’t reach the most struggling farmers, or unfairly reaches different groups of farmers, while big farms qualify for support for decades in a row. Is that something that concerns you?

RF: It does. It does that that is being said. Because whether it’s a congressional program or it’s a farm bill program, or if it’s an ad hoc program maybe that originates here at the department, we look at an enormous amount of data – economic data, by crop, by commodity, what’s the impact, if it was a retaliatory tariff issue, if it’s a coronavirus issue, and look at what is the real impact? Obviously, we work very closely with the office of the chief economist here at USDA. We have really fostered, and I know this probably had taken place to some degree, but under the leadership of Secretary Perdue, kind of this one USDA approach.

We work very closely, since I’ve been here, with AMS on the CFAP program. Obviously work very closely with our sister agencies RMA and NRCS, where those programs align, and very closely with NASS. NASS, that’s an entire agency of statisticians and mathematicians and folks that understand what the numbers mean. I feel very strongly that when we roll a program out, we have looked at the universe of what’s been impacted, what’s been affected, and try to provide meaningful assistance to everyone.

I heard it said several months ago, our programs are really size neutral with caps. Right? Some of those larger farms that you mentioned, a lot of times come under payment limitations. If they hit a certain level, they’re going to hit a payment limitation.

Smaller farms are not subject to payment limitations because just the scope of their operation, and the payments, don’t get them to that level. We try very, very hard to distribute whatever assistance it is as equitably as we can. It’s not done quickly. There’s a lot of analysis that goes into standing up a program prior to doing that. There’s just a lot of thoughtful people here that work on these programs as well.

SF: Government payments are estimated to be 36% of farm income this year. How does that reflect your goals or vision for FSA and its programs?

RF: It means a lot to provide meaningful support in times when its needed. We obviously, want to provide a safety net. From an agency perspective, we want to provide a safety net to producers. It’s a food security issue. You can go as far as to say it’s a national security issue to make sure that our farmers are in business and that they’re productive, they’re sustainable. We, in a small way, I think, contribute to that safety net approach to agriculture.

There would be no one here that would have predicted a pandemic. The other thing I’m really proud of is the department’s ability to be responsive, and to be nimble, and to react -- whether it’s natural disasters, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s a retaliatory tariff situation – where we can respond and provide some support.

Our programs, whether they’re disaster assistance, disaster response, if they’re responding to the pandemic, if they’re responding to retaliatory tariffs, we never make farmers whole. Every farmer, rancher, forest land owner, they want to grow a crop. They want to take that to harvest, and they want the best yield they can get, and they want good markets. So when that doesn’t happen, that’s when we step in and provide some relief.

SF: Is there anything specific that you have learned in this year of unpredictability?

RF: Our agency has always been a customer facing agency. We’ve interacted with producers, because it’s worked, across the counter. There’s been a personal relationship. With the pandemic and our operating statuses, we had to respond quickly to figure out ways that we could continue to interact and serve farmers and ranchers across this country. I did learn that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

We were able to put technologies in the hands of our employees to be able to work remotely, which a lot of them didn’t have that capability. We were able to do that very quickly. It was the primary motivation of this department, under the leadership of Secretary Perdue and other leaders within the department, that we were going to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. And we did it in record time.

We stood up the CFAP program, I don’t want to say how many days, because I don’t remember, but it was fast and it was furious, and it was all hands on deck. It was political leadership. It was career leadershi, all of us in the same boat, rowing the same direction to get that out.

We continue to do that, and we respond to whatever happens to come our way. What I’ve learned is, this agency, as large as it is, has the ability to be nimble, and to be flexible, and to be responsive in a way that I don’t know that we’ve seen in the past.

I’ve learned a lot, I will tell you that. And I’ve learned to just anticipate tomorrow and see what tomorrow brings.

Richard Fordyce speaking
Photo credit: USDA

SF: If you had time to sit down with a farmer this morning, what would your key message be?

RF: I think, depending on what sector, and maybe what part of the country, because we’ve got certain sectors that are enduring some low prices, and we’ve got certain parts of the country that are enduring some awful weather. Whether it’s the derecho in Iowa, the droughts in the West and kind of now moving into the Midwest, or some in New England, hurricanes now making landfall last week and this week.

I’ve been a farmer all my life. Agriculture’s never been easy. But, that group of people that make up the farming community, they’re incredibly resilient. Most of the time, they’re incredibly positive.

I would say that we hope for the best, and plan for the worst. We will get though this. Every period has its time, and we’re going to get through this.

I started farming in the 80s, during the farm crisis, as we often refer to it. We came through that. We came through that actually stronger. I think that through struggles, I think we are stronger. While it’s a bit of a struggle right now, and again, that’s when we step in and offer some assistance, we’re certainly not making folks whole. We will come out on the other side of this as an industry. We’ll come out stronger.

Personally, I hope we come out on this sooner rather than later. From a federal department, USDA, from an agency perspective, we’re thinking about folks. We try every day to figure out how we could respond and be of some help as we travel through this challenge and get over to the other side.

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