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Longer road ahead for local farmers?

Public hearing Wednesday on closing South Bend FSA office.
January 22, 2012|AMANDA GRAY | South Bend Tribune 

Because of a reporting error, this story originally stated a hearing on whether the South Bend office of the Farm Service Agency should be closed starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The hearing actually takes place from 1-3 p.m.

By this summer, local farmers may have to drive to Marshall County to talk to the Farm Service Agency.

A public hearing will be held Wednesday on the proposed closing of the St. Joseph County FSA office, moving all operations to the Marshall County office, according to FSA State Executive Director Julia Wickard. Two other county offices are also proposed to close.

These closures "have been in the works the last three years," she said. "We had to look at some targeted positions in the state."

FSA offices provide agricultural assistance to farmers in the form of crop insurance, emergency assistance programs and credit, among other things.

Wickard said offices were chosen by criteria from Congress' 2008 Farm Bill. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the proposed closing of 131 offices nationwide Jan. 9.

"This bill gives the secretary of agriculture the right to close offices that have less than two employees and are within 20 miles of another office," she said.

The St. Joseph County office currently has no permanent staff because of retirements during 2011, she said. Currently, staff members from other counties travel to the St. Joseph County office for coverage. Out of the 131 office closures proposed nationwide, 27 offices have no permanent staff.

The public meeting will take place at the main St. Joseph County Public Library from 1-3 p.m. Wednesday. Wickard said she encourages public attendance and comment.

"At the meeting I will lay out how we got to this place, and then there will be a public comment period," she said. "This is a time for public testimony, as well as an opportunity for written testimony, up to 10 days after the meeting. This is truly a period of public comment -- we want as much public comment and input as possible."

All input from the meeting will be sent to Vilsack in Washington, D.C., Wickard said. A decision to close the office will be made within 90 days of the initial proposal.

Brent Burkus, the manager of Martin Blad Farms Inc., in St. Joseph County, said the proposed closure isn't ideal, but might be necessary.

"With the dire straits of the financial state of our government, there have got to be cuts made," he said. "It's unsustainable. We've all got to take a hit, and if it requires me to drive an hour to talk to someone, so be it."

Burkus said he does most of his business with the FSA over the phone or through e-mail, so the change will not affect him too much.

"The FSA is always very responsive," he said. "We're dealing with Marshall County FSA right now, and they're very helpful.

"I don't like the fact that it's closing, but the financial realities dictate it has to. Is it more convenient for me if it stays open? Yes, of course. But we all have to face the reality that this is what we need to turn the financial situation around."

Wickard said it's important for the state FSA office to help as many people as possible.

"At the end of the day, it is our goal to provide the best service for those who walk through the door," she said. "This gives us the ability to provide the best service possible and an adequate staff."

Staff writer Amanda Gray: telephone 574-235-6327
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