FSA offices working to increase hiring

Jenny Schlecht
Forum News Service

FARGO, N.D. — County Farm Service Agencies have a lot on their desks this fall.

“We have programs that are popping up left and right, and we are just having to implement those programs,” says Brad Thykeson, North Dakota FSA executive director.

Farm Service Agency is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers farm programs through county-based offices

This year’s Market Facilitation Program, which is meant to make up for market difficulties due to trade wars, is one example of programs that FSA offices administer. It’s the second such program in as many years and has been dubbed “MFP 2.0.” On top of that, this is a sign-up year for the 2018 Farm Bill safety net programs, Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage. And then there are the issues more close at hand to many in the region — losses due to the weather.

“We are also right in the midst of a weather phenomenon that none of us have ever experienced,” says Kyle Dufault, administrative officer in the North Dakota office.

Those weather problems have made some agricultural producers eligible for the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, or WHIP+, and some will have cattle losses or hay losses to report through other FSA programs. And then there are all the normal operations that keep going in the offices, even during a disaster.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., asked USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky during a hearing earlier this month whether FSA offices throughout the country were prepared to help farmers. Censky says some county offices are understaffed, but he says USDA has “a very aggressive hiring plan” and has increased human resources staff to try to get the hiring process moving faster. Additionally, he says USDA has moved additional resources to offices that are “underwater” to try to help clear backlogs.

Dufault says in North Dakota it isn’t a case of a few offices being understaffed or overly busy.

“Offices are busy all over the state,” he says.

That means it doesn’t make sense to shuffle employees within the state to help with catch up. However, FSA has requested some temporary employees to help offices, Dufault says.

“We are doing all we can within the budgets and constraints that we have,” he says.

To help ease the stress on the office workers, Thykeson says outreach has been important to make sure farmers are aware of deadlines so that there isn’t a rush of people trying to sign up for programs at the last minute. He advises people to come ready with correct documentation and to make appointments to reduce wait times.

“If you have 12 angry farmers standing in line, it doesn’t do anything for anyone,” he says.

Dec. 6 deadline

Through Wednesday, Oct. 23, Brian Haugen, program director in the North Dakota office, says about 80% of farmers who are eligible for the MFP 2.0 program have signed up. Farmers have until Dec. 6 to sign up. So far, $339 million has been sent to North Dakota farmers in the program and $5.94 billion has gone out nationally. Those numbers will go up as more people sign up and more cases are processed, Haugen says. Plus, only initial payments have gone out so far; Haugen says two additional “phases” could double the amount farmers in the program get, if Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue decides the additional payments are warranted. The top states for MFP 2.0 payments so far are Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas.

Thykeson says FSA staff largely are involved in agriculture personally and live in the communities they serve. That can make it even harder as the conditions in farming and ranching remain difficult, as they are expected for many more months, he says.

“FSA is going to do what we can to assist these producers to get through this hard time,” Thykeson says.

John Hoeven, R-N.D., hosts a “roundtable” to describe a quickly-organized Market Facilitation Program, as well as prevented-planting crop insurance and disaster program payments. To the right is Brad Thykeson, North Dakota state executive director of the Farm Service Agency. Photo taken May 28, 2019, in Fargo, N.D.