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Ag Department takes another run at modernizing county office system

Updated:
PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. (AP) _ A proposal to consolidate local farm offices, hastily scrapped last year amid outrage from farmers and Congress, is being pushed again as an effort to modernize a Depression-era network.

This time, officials are promising to be much less aggressive _ even as they point out that the offices have too few trained employees and some computers so old they can't connect to the Internet.

``I sincerely believe we can restructure and do a better job,'' Teresa Lasseter, the new Farm Service Agency administrator, said in an interview with The Associated Press. ``I don't want to close offices just to be closing offices. The only reason we would be closing offices is to provide better service.''

No changes will happen without public hearings and talks with Congress, she said, and state-level officials will have significant control over where cuts are made.

The local office is essential to a farmer's bottom line. Producers must visit there to sign up for an array of government payments and loans.

More than 2,300 counties _ virtually every rural county in the nation _ have a Farm Service Agency Office. But that is no guarantee it will be open on a given day, or that a farmer will find answers in a single visit.

A business wouldn't operate that way, said Keith Widdowson, who runs the Somerset and Worcester county offices in Maryland. The offices on the Eastern Shore are 18 miles apart with two employees each.

If one staffer leaves, the other must juggle farmers lined up at the counter and tend the phones alone _ and be an expert on dozens of different programs.

``It's not an efficient way to run the office,'' Widdowson said. ``It worked years ago, when we had enough staff, but not anymore.''

Merging might mean a longer drive for some farmers, but the result would be better, faster service, he said.

Still, many farmers can't get past the idea of a longer drive.

``It would mean we'd lose valuable time trying to go to an office that's far away,'' said Brinsfield Lowe, who grows soybeans, corn and vegetables farther north in Dorchester County. Sometimes only one employee is working at his local office, in Cambridge, but Lowe thinks he gets good service.

Amy Farrell worries about the idea of merging the offices she runs in Calvert and St. Mary's counties because some producers there would face a 90-minute drive. Still, Farrell is reassured that state-level officials, not Washington bureaucrats, are being asked to design an overhaul.

``We've built up a good trust with all our farmers and producers, and if we can understand why we may have to consolidate, we can make the farmers understand why we have to consolidate,'' she said.

It was Washington bureaucrats who handed down the order last fall that 713 offices, more than 30 percent, would have to close. Maryland and five other states _ Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia _ would have seen the biggest cuts, with 40 percent or more offices closed.

In Congress, word leaked before most lawmakers were briefed, and they reacted with alarm, passing legislation that blocked any closures without public hearings or notice to Congress.

Lasseter was not yet on board at the Agriculture Department. But as a former county and state FSA official in Georgia, she was not a fan of last year's plan. ``It was a bit aggressive,'' she said.

By no stretch of the imagination is this latest plan the same, she said.

Lasseter's boss, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, said there won't be consolidation without involvement from lawmakers. ``We'll work with Congress. We heard the message, and we heard it loud and clear,'' he told reporters recently.

Lawmakers are receptive so far.

``This is the kind of approach they should have taken from the beginning,'' said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., sponsor of the measure to block the closings. ``What you've got to do is make certain the process isn't hijacked at some point from Washington.''

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he's cautious but open to the idea. ``I never said no to reorganization last year,'' he said. ``I only said what a screwy way of bringing this to our attention.''
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