By Michael Schaffer - Managing editor
A huge crowd between 200-250 Tuesday afternoon gathered at Faith United Methodist Church in Centerville to decry the proposed closing and consolidation of the Farm Service Agency office in Appanoose County.
Some said the meeting was a formality and the "proposed" decision to close the Centerville FSA office that serves Appanoose County producers had already been made. County FSA offices provide information and service to local farmers and land owners for every United States Department of Agriculture program.
The two-hour meeting was attended by John R. Whitaker, state executive director and Dennis Olson, administrative officer, both with Iowa Farm Service Agency. Local producers have until Feb. 9 to submit written comments concerning the plan by mail to John R. Whitaker, State Executive Director, Iowa State FSA Office, 10500 Buena Vista Court, Des Moines, IA 50322 or by email to email@example.com.
Tom Vilsack, who served as Iowa's governor from 1998-2006, and now heads the USDA, wants to close four FSA offices in Iowa and a total of 259 offices, labs and other facilities in the United States in an effort to save $150 million per year.
One-by-one local farmers, county and city officials and others took the microphone to voice their displeasure with the USDA plan to close the FSA office in Centerville.
Appanoose County Supervisor Linda Rouse, who has a small farming operation, expressed the sadness, frustration and pain she and others have over the proposed closing of the FSA office in Centerville. She said FSA provides guidance to help comply with USDA regulations.
"They're my trusted allies," Rouse said. "It's an institution. Something to rely on in this complicated world."
Rouse said the proposed closing of the Centerville FSA office feels like another attack on hard-working Americans.
More than one who talked during the meeting Tuesday afternoon questioned if the USDA in Washington had already made the decision to close the Centerville FSA office and consolidate it with the one in Monroe County.
Larry Sheets talked about the farm he bought in 1998 near Exline with the purpose to grow hard wood trees. Sheets said the FSA office employees in Centerville were very helpful because he needed their advice to grow the trees.
Sheets questioned if Tuesday's meeting was necessary because the decision to close the FSA office in Centerville had already been made. Sheets was not alone.
Ray Cook said he's farmed in both Wayne and Appanoose County. He said the people deserve to know the details of how the decision was made to close the FSA office in Appanoose County.
"I need this office. These other people need this office," Cook said.
Dave Powell, life-long Appanoose County farmer, asked if the decision had already been made and Tuesday's meeting was "just to make us feel better to be allowed to speak."
Powell questioned how closing the FSA office in Appanoose County would save any money. He thought the Appanoose County FSA office was being penalized for "doing more with less."
Several who spoke Tuesday expressed the same thought; the Appanoose County FSA office was being penalized for being so efficient.
Danny Furlin, a farmer and Appanoose County Farm Bureau president, said the FSA office in Appanoose County has been understaffed with only two employees, the same number in the Decatur County FSA office. Both have been identified by the USDA for closing and consolidation with nearby FSA offices.
Yet, the FSA office in Polk County is overstaffed and underworked, Furlin said.
"The decision should be made by work load instead of employee count," Furlin said.
Tod Faris, Appanoose Economic Development Corporation executive director, said the FSA office in Centerville helped 1,700 people last year and is in the top 1/3 of busiest offices.
"It's going to hurt us in every way," Faris said if the Appanoose County FSA office in Centerville is closed. "We don't want Appanoose County as the automatic default for closing offices."
Kris Koestner, Centerville businessman and owner of 32 acres at the J&K Barn, said Appanoose County has one of the lowest lease rates in Iowa.
Appanoose County FSA helped 1,700 producers with two full-time employees last year and have been doing the same since 2008, he said. By comparison, Polk County FSA office served 800 producers last year with five full-time employees and that county has one of the highest lease rates in the state.
"So where's the common sense? You're punishing us for being efficient," Koestner said. "My suggestion to you is think about closing your higher price, urban offices and let rural Iowa do what it does best."
Richard Johnson, who has an operation in northeast Appanoose County, said the USDA budget was busted with the Conservation Reserve Program.
"If the USDA needs to save money, they shouldn't have doubled and tripled their bids on CRP contracts nationwide," Johnson said. "I'm positive that this would have saved taxpayers more than to not keep these FSA offices open."
Johnson praised the employees at the Appanoose County FSA as being very efficient.
Carol Bradley, a farmer in Appanoose County, talked about the details involved in the FSA office consolidation — two or fewer employees and located 20 miles to the next nearest one. She was unable to understand the rational to close certain FSA offices over others.
Bradley said out of all the FSA offices the USDA wants to close, three are located in the southern 1/3 of Iowa.
Bradley said she relies on the Appanoose County FSA office staff before she ever submits anything relating to her farming operations.
John Glenn, with Rathbun Regional Water Association, said the decision to close the FSA office in Centerville should be a business decision made at the state level.
John Davenport talked about his need for FSA assistance as every year USDA issues more government regulations. He said he doesn't have time to figure out all the regulations.
"I need the local FSA office. We need their assistance when we try to honor the rules of the programs that we participate in," Davenport said. "I need their knowledge. They've helped me, they've motivated me and they've certainly taught me and I really appreciate it."
Davenport questioned if he would get the same quality help from a different office in a different county.
Jim Senior, Centerville mayor, said closing the Appanoose County FSA office doesn't make any sense.
"Bureaucracy in Washington once again making decisions based on something other than knowledge, knowledge of the land and ..." as he was cut off by thunderous applause.
U.S. Congressman for Appanoose County, Dave Loebsack, had his opposition against closing the Centerville FSA office voiced by Dien Judge, his representative for this area.