Closing of 260 USDA offices raises concerns

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DES MOINES, Iowa - The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Monday it will close nearly 260 offices nationwide, a move that won praise for cutting costs but raised concerns about the possible effect on food safety.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the goal was to save $150 million a year in the agency's $145 billion budget. About $90 million had already been saved by reducing travel and supplies, and the closures were expected to save another $60 million, he said.

The plan calls for 259 offices, labs and other facilities to be closed, affecting the USDA headquarters in Washington and operations in 46 states. Seven foreign offices also will be shut.

Some of the closures had been previously announced. The USDA said last year it would shut down 10 agricultural research stations, including the only one in Alaska, where scientists were seeking ways to use the vast waste generated by the largest wild fishery in the nation to make everything from gel caps for pills to fish meal for livestock feed.

Other parts of the announcement were a surprise. Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager for the Food Safety and Inspection Service in Minneapolis, learned his office would be closed, along with those in Madison, Wis., and Lawrence, Kan.

"They wiped out the entire Midwest," said Lorenz, whose office handles all federal inspections of meat, poultry and egg products in Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.

FSIS offices in Chicago and Des Moines will remain open. It was not immediately clear whether work from the other offices would be shifted to them.

Lorenz said about 16 people work in his office, and he expected 12 to 14 of their jobs to be eliminated. A USDA spokeswoman said employees would be given the opportunity to transfer to other offices whenever possible.

Vilsack said he didn't anticipate widespread layoffs, in part because 7,000 USDA employees took early retirements over the past year. He said the agency is trying to do more with less in light of federal cutbacks, and many of the offices to be closed had few employees or were near other offices.

"Our workload is at record highs, we have less money and fewer people and work to do and we tried to address how do you do that without interrupting service," Vilsack said in a phone call from Honolulu, where he was speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The USDA manages a wide array of programs, from emergency aid for farmers to grants for rural development and food assistance programs for the poor. Along with the Agricultural Research and Food Safety and Inspection services, six other departments will be affected by closures, including the Farm Service Agency and Rural Development.

Kevin Ross, 31, a sixth-generation farmer in Iowa, expressed concern about how services would be affected. Farmers could drop out of programs if they have to travel long distances, he said.

"Access to agencies is a big deal, especially in rural areas," said Ross, who grows 400 acres of corn on his farm near Minden. "It's easy to say it looks like great cost savings, but I hope they are careful and strategic in their decisions."

Vilsack said public hearings will be held in counties where Farm Service Agency offices are to be closed. That department handles disaster assistance, farm loans and crop subsidies, among other programs. The USDA plans to shut 131 FSA offices in 32 states, with largest number of closures in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.

Bruce Babcock, a farm economist at Iowa State University and director of the school's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, said consolidation was a long time coming, given that advances in technology made it possible to file applications and do other tasks over the phone or online. He said he's more concerned about the USDA's ability to maintain programs that deal with disease prevention.

"The capability to collect data and do the behind the scenes activities that really help U.S. agriculture stay safe, that should be concerning," Babcock said.

Colin Woodall, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents more than 147,000 ranchers nationwide, applauded the USDA for trying to save taxpayers' money in tight economic times but also expressed concern about food safety.

"We can't say this is all great news because some offices will be closed," he said. "We have to make sure we have the process in place to keep food safe."

Vilsack said the closures and other cost-cutting measures will allow the agency to keep investing in programs that make agriculture more productive, including maintaining credit to farmers, providing aid to beginning farmers and scientific research.

"Over the long haul, we believe farmers and ranchers across the country will be better served by the choices we made," he said.

But that was of little consolation to California cotton growers mourning the loss of the 80-year-old agriculture research station at Shafter, which solved many of the industry's pest and fungus issues.

Calcot, a growers' co-op that sells more than a million bales annually, had lobbied officials to keep the center, which lately has been working to address fusarium wilt, a soil-dwelling fungus that attacks cotton plants.

"This is going to be to the detriment of the U.S. cotton industry and ultimately the world because so much research there has benefited growers everywhere," Calcot spokesman Mark Bagby said.

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