If there are fewer farmers in the U.S., then perhaps there should be fewer Farm Service Agency offices.
That's the message being sent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which recently announced a plan to close potentially hundreds of offices around the country and to modernize others.
Some of the county offices earmarked for consolidation are in East Central Illinois. They include the Piatt, Moultrie, DeWitt and Coles County Farm Service Agency offices. All told, 26 offices in Illinois may close.
"It is not so much a budgetary issue, but an issue of having better-trained staff and fully equipped offices," said Joe Alexander, public affairs specialist with the Illinois Farm Service Agency in Springfield. "Whether we like this or not, our farmers are fewer in number, but the acres they farm are getting larger and larger. ... What we're trying to do is change with the times," he said.
When the Farm Service Agency offices were first built, there were more farmers in each county and it was more difficult to travel longer distances. "Now we're facing a time where farmers are farming in a larger geographical area and we're more mobile than we used to be," Alexander added.
Not everyone has rallied behind the plan.
The National Farmers Union called for a comprehensive analysis of the closing and consolidation plans, such as the economic impact on rural communities. It also called for public hearings to be held in counties that would be affected by the closings.
U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, and Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, have spoken out against the plan. Johnson called it ill-advised and ill-conceived.
"The bottom line is small-town America is going to suffer, the ag sector will suffer. It's like taking a post office away from a town," Johnson said.
FSA offices are community institutions that provide vital services to farmers and landowners, he said.
"We're hopeful the secretary at the USDA and the relative enforcement folks will see this as the mistake that it is," Johnson said.
"A lot of people just prefer to come in and make sure their forms are filled in correctly," said Brian Malone, county executive director for the Piatt County Farm Service Agency, one of the offices being considered for closure. "In a rural area, many people like to do business face-to-face. They may have a computer that they keep records on, but when it comes to doing business, they like coming into an office," he said.
The Farm Service Agency, which is part of the USDA, has 2,351 offices around the country. Of those, more than 400 have two or fewer full-time employees, according to the USDA.
The agency administers government farm programs, subsidies that include direct payments and loans. In recent years the agency has offered more of its services online.
Over the next several weeks, state executive directors with the Farm Service Agency will be reviewing information such as county offices' workloads, proximity to other offices, farm lending volume and the density of agricultural activity in the area.
The directors are expected to submit their consolidation proposals to the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., by Nov. 15.
"My hope is that we can agree on a plan that will make it possible to invest in equipment, technology and our employees. We want to ensure that top-notch service is provided to our farmers and ranchers long into the future," said USDA Secretary Mike Johanns in a statement released to the press.
Added Alexander: "We've been trying to be open and honest and candid with employees, the media, and commodity groups and the congressional delegation. Everyone has a stake in this."