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Archive for Friday, October 27, 2006

Facing reality

The nature of agriculture in Kansas has changed, and the way services are provided must change with it.

October 27, 2006

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As painful as it may be for some Kansas communities, it no longer makes sense to maintain a Farm Service Agency office in every Kansas county.

The Kansas FSA announced Wednesday that it would close 11 offices in an effort to trim more than $500,000 a year from its budget. Officials say they also hope the closings will allow them to provide more efficient services.

When the network of federal farm offices was formed in the 1930s, it made sense to have one in every county to oversee federal farm programs and payments. Transportation at that time was slower and less convenient and people had to physically travel to the office to do business rather than communicating by telephone, computer or fax. Farms also were much smaller, and each county office served a far greater number of farmers than it does now. It's probably safe to say there are counties in Kansas that still have an FSA office but no operating grain elevator in which to store their harvest.

Kansas still has 103 FSA offices to serve 105 counties. However, 32 of those are "shared-manager" offices, meaning their top managers serve more than one office. Staff in many of those offices has been trimmed to the bare bones, the only way to reduce expenses is to close offices and consolidate staffing.

The Kansas FSA office declined to list the offices recommended for closure, but said they stretched across the state and that all but two or three of them already operate with shared managers. The list compiled by the Kansas office will be forwarded to the national FSA for approval before closings are finalized.

For counties that may already be dealing with the loss of schools, post offices and businesses that go along with declining populations, the closing of any office is bound to be a blow. In some counties, government jobs constitute a high proportion of the employment opportunities. Even if the FSA office employs only one or two people, that's one or two fewer people who may continue to live in town.

Nonetheless, life is about changes. Although the agriculture economy still is vital to Kansas, the nature of that business has changed. There are far fewer farms and farmers in the state, and new forms of communication no longer make it necessary to have FSA services within a day's ride on horseback.

It's important for state and federal governments to support rural towns that are struggling to survive, but there are better uses of taxpayer money than propping up little-used agriculture offices.

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