Farmers, others say restrictions will impact FSA work, personnel and farmer signups
Farmers are raising questions about their ability to enroll in various farm programs given the restrictions that are in place in terms of visiting their local USDA Service Center.
Leaders of the USDA Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) area have met with the Office of the Secretary at USDA to discuss the situation relative to the Covid Workplace Safety Plan which encourages teleworking in the offices if possible.
But the agency, based on guidance from the White House, has required that all FPAC facilities have to maintain staffing at 25% of employees or less. If those agencies under FPAC share space with other agencies and have separate offices within that space, they are allowed up to 25% staffing for each agency. However, the guidance still said this “means 25% for the entire facility or agency office.”
Offices are also able to adjust schedules and stagger shifts to accommodate the staff needed to accomplish what they label as “operational missions.”
As for farmers visiting, the rule is that “visitors are not permitted until additional guidance can be approved.” FSA Washington has dictated that service is to be delivered to customers “via phone and internet as was previously done” via other phases of Covid-related office operations. If there are exceptions, the requirements are that the office then has to “adjust office occupancy to remain at 25% or below and adjust staff numbers to accommodate the visitors.”
Guidance from FPAC indicates they are working to provide exemptions for service centers that are “in areas of low community transmission.”
Guidance to the public on Covid-related restrictions indicate, “USDA Service Centers … will continue to be open for business by phone appointment only and field work will continue with appropriate social distancing. While our program delivery staff will continue to come into the office, they will be working with our producers by phone, and using online tools whenever possible.”
According to the farmers.gov website for service center status updates, most of the service centers across the Midwest are shown as being open for phone appointments only with a handful of offices being able to offer “limited in-person appointments.” Sources advise that FSA Washington is expected to extend some signup deadlines given the inability of farmers to be able to physically go to their local service centers.
“I don’t know how in the heck USDA thinks that any of these deadlines for signup can be met with these kinds of restrictions going on indefinitely,” said Steve Verett, Chief Executive Officer, Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. A farm policy analyst told Pro Farmer: “This will almost certainly, seriously and unnecessarily delay and complicate Covid relief to producers.”