2012-02-02 / Front Page

Nearly 70 Attend FSA Public Meeting

FSA exec director oversees meeting on possible office closure here
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz
STAFF WRITER

Local farmer Cory Gress perhaps summed up the situation best Monday morning when he told state Farm Service Agency officials an existing proposal to close the agency’s McConnellsburg office may save the government money but will in turn put some local farmers under additional financial stress.

Gress was among the nearly 70 producers, concerned residents and officials from farming-related offices to appear at Fulton Theatre for the January 30 public meeting on the proposed closure. Bill Wehry, state Farm Service Agency (FSA) executive director, fielded questions from those on hand and also took the opportunity to outline how the United States Department of Agriculture had devised its plan known as the Blueprint for Stronger Service.

According to Wehry, on January 9, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the Blueprint for Stronger Service is a review of the organization’s overall operations in an attempt to reduce various expenditures such as travel, staff, cellphone plans and even printing costs.

Another aspect of the plan is the proposed closure and/or consolidation of offices, which affects a total of seven FSA offices in the commonwealth. Wehry noted annual costs associated with office rental is approximately $11,000 for the local office. That number does not include expenses related to utilities, office supplies or personnel.

In response to the announcement, area farmer Neill Miller questioned how much the closure will cost farmers to travel over the mountain to obtain services at the Franklin Farm Lane, Chambersburg, office. Fuel expense and wear and tear on vehicles were big concerns for the local producers as well as time constraints and comfort.

Many on hand, including Miller, pointed out their trip to the McConnellsburg FSA office, located in the former IGA building, also lends itself to “one-stop shopping.” While visiting the FSA, farmers also swing by the Penn State Extension Office and the Fulton County Conservation District in addition to banking and shopping.

In outlining how offices were selected for closure and consolidation, Wehry touched on a Farm Bill enacted by Congress in 2008 that specifically dictates criteria for closure and a coordinating timeline. Wehry stated FSA offices eyed for closure are “located less than 20 miles from another office of the FSA and have two or fewer permanent full-time employees.” He later clarified that the mileage is identified in Euclidean miles or “basically as the crow flies.”

Fulton County Farm Bureau President Marlin Lynch noted MapQuest calculates the mileage between the Fulton and Franklin County offices as 24.3 miles, while Google measures the distance as 26.12 miles.

“We would like to see the office remain right where it is,” said Lynch. “The fact that some bureaucrat with a straight-line ruler said this is the way we’ll do it ... is ludicrous in my mind to think they would actually use that kind of a nomenclature to determine this is the way we will exclude or include certain people. I think it’s just ridiculous myself.”

“When you start driving those miles, it becomes an economic liability. I made that trip for 28 years. I taught school there, and it was 100 miles or a little over round trip every day, so I know all about that trip and how expensive it can be,” he added.

County Commissioner Irvin Dasher added that “nobody here flies by the crow.” Dasher also pointed out the rules brought about by the 2008 Farm Bill seem to have been devised with Fulton County in mind. “It seems the rules were made to manipulate us into losing our office,” he concluded.

Wehry related if approved to consolidate with Franklin County, local producers reserve the right to take their files and documentation to an office of their choice.

Dairy farmers Lonnie and Debra Palmer took the opportunity to speak publicly on how the move would affect their southern Fulton County operation. Lonnie Palmer stated his schedule doesn’t afford him the time to “run here and there.”

“Fulton County is a fairly big agricultural area. After JLG, ag is about all we’ve got,” said Lonnie. “We would hate to see it (the FSA office) leave.”

Mark Knepper of the Hustontown area, who was accompanied by his father and longtime dairy farmer, Frederic, voiced his pleasure at having a local FSA office. Knepper stated he was worried that the office’s lone employee is stretched to the limit servicing the entire county, but added if the office is closed he didn’t anticipate receiving better service elsewhere.

Knepper along with several other farmers noted it was likely many individuals would just stop going to the office due to travel constraints.

FSA employee Holly Baker urged those in attendance, “Now is the time for all of you and your neighbors to speak.” Those on hand were repeatedly told to submit their comments and concerns in writing for final consideration by the national committee. Written comment on the proposed closure can be sent to PA State FSA Office, c/o Bill Wehry (SED), 1 Credit Union Place, Suite 32D, Harrisburg, PA 17110. Comments may also be sent via e-mail to bill.wehry@pa.usda.gov.

All comments and concerns must be received within 10 calendar days of the meeting or February 9. The national committee will then have a period of 90 days to review all comments and render a final decision.

In addition to submitting written comment, local residents and farmers were further urged to contact their senators and representatives even though notification has already been made by the FSA.

Contacts include U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, 202-225-2421; U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, 202-224-4254; U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, 202-224-6324; state Sen. John Eichelberger Jr., 717-787-5490; and state Rep. Dick Hess, 717-787-7076.

Wehry informed Commissioner Rodney McCray if viable solutions were presented they would be considered by the committee. A regional office was one of several options presented by concerned farmers.

In spite of the skepticism of some, Wehry assured the crowd a decision has not been made and the closure here is only a proposal. He concluded he will not be involved in the decision-making process.

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