By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
In a press release today, United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced his plan to close 259 USDA offices nationwide in an effort to save money and make the U.S. Department of Agriculture more efficient.
Secretary Vilsack said “The USDA, like families and businesses across the country, cannot continue to operate like we did 50 years ago,” “We must innovate, modernize, and be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. We must build on the record accomplishments of farm communities in 2011 with a stronger, more effective USDA in 2012 and beyond.”
“As part of the Campaign to Cut Waste, the President and I asked all Cabinet Secretaries to make tough choices within their departments to save taxpayer money, eliminate government waste, and allow us to invest in the programs and services the American people need. This announcement by Secretary Vilsack is another example of how this can be done,” said Vice President Biden. “By undertaking a thorough and thoughtful review of his Department, Secretary Vilsack has saved taxpayers millions in travel and printing costs and is consolidating more than 700 different cell phone contracts into about 10. What’s more, the Department is finding significant savings by consolidating more than 200 offices across the country while ensuring that the vital services they provide are not cut.”
The Secretary’s plan, titled ‘The Blueprint for Stronger Service’, was announced by Secretary Vilsack while speaking at the 93rd meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The only office in Alabama on Secretary Vilsack’s list was the Rural Development Office (RDO) in Dothan Alabama. Tennessee and Mississippi were much more heavily affected by the proposed cuts. Tennessee will lose nine Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices, nine Rural Development Offices, and a Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) office in Nashville. Mississippi will lose 8 FSA offices, the Food and nutrition office in Jackson, a rural development office, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) office in Gulfport. Presumably the Dothan RDO office will be merged with the RDO office in Ozark, AL. The RDO manages a portfolio of $155 billion in loans to farms, ranches, businesses, and rural communities.
The USDA has also announced plans to shut down ten of the Agricultural Experiment Stations that conduct scientific research into improving agricultural yields, food safety, and identifying environmental best practices. The ten research stations to be closed are in Fairbanks, Alaska; Shafter, California; Brooksville, FL; Watkinsville, GA; New Orleans, LA; Coshocton, OH; Lane, OK; Clemson, SC; Weslaco, TX; and Beaver, WV. The USDA Agricultural Experiment Stations played a large part in the Green Revolution.
Secretary Vilsack says that his plan will save $150 million a year out of the Department’s $145 billion budget. 74% of USDA’s budget however is the federal food stamp program and other nutrition programs. Secretary Vilsack does not believe that the proposed cuts will lead to any employees being laid off as over 7000 USDA employees received early retirement packages last year. A USDA spokesman has said that affected USDA employees will be given an opportunity to transfer to other USDA offices or facilities when possible.
Secretary Vilsack was appointed the Secretary of Agriculture by President Barack H. Obama and confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate. Prior to that, he was the two term Democratic Governor of Iowa.
Critics are concerned that the proposed cutbacks could potentially lead to decreased food safety and the closing of so many offices could make USDA services less accessible to America’s farmers and ranchers.