published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

U.S. Department of Agriculture move worries Tennessee farmers

Justin Jackson hooks a wagon to a tractor after loading hay at his father's farm in the New Harmony community on Dayton Mountain in Bledsoe County.
Justin Jackson hooks a wagon to a tractor after loading hay at his father's farm in the New Harmony community on Dayton Mountain in Bledsoe County.
Photo by John Rawlston.

CONSOLIDATION


The nine USDA Farm Service Agency offices on the list for consolidation in Tennessee are in the following counties:

East Tennessee

Anderson

Bledsoe

Carter

Cocke

Sevier

Middle Tennessee

Bedford

Cannon

Humphreys

Trousdale

Source: USDA Farm Service Agency Tennessee

NEW HARMONY, Tenn. — You can get just about anything a farmer needs at Jackson Farm Supply near the Bledsoe-Rhea county line on Walden’s Ridge.

Feed, seed, fuel, hay, fencing, gates, fertilizer, rental equipment, it’s all there.

Johnny Jackson, who owns the family farm and store with his brother, mother and sister and farms 25 crops on about 1,000 acres in Bledsoe, said that’s the same feeling he gets with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency office in Pikeville.

Vivian Tollet, who works in the office, helps Jackson and fellow farmers with federal program applications, funding and record keeping and implementation of program services, officials said.

But there might not be a hometown office much longer, because the Pikeville location is targeted for consolidation with its sister office in Dayton, Tenn. That worries Jackson, both for himself and the farming industry in general.

“I’ve been dealing with Vivian for years over there,” he said. “She makes sure I know what I have done and what I haven’t got done.”

The Pikeville office tracks his crop production, keeps him informed on available crop insurance, maintains acreage records and maps of fields, and helps Jackson and his fellow farmers get the most out of their land while conserving it for the future.

Jackson said he’s puzzled by the proposed consolidation of the Pikeville office to Rhea County, where there are fewer farms.

For Jackson, the drive to Dayton will be the same as the drive to Pikeville, but he said he worries that farmers who aren’t situated within a reasonably short driving distance will stop using the Farm Service Agency and conservation services that keep farming communities thriving.

Federal moves are under way to consolidate 131 Farm Service Agency offices nationwide — nine of them in Tennessee — that meet criteria for consolidation or closure under the farm bill passed in 2008, according to Gene Davidson, FSA executive director for Tennessee.

Through 2005, Tennessee offices already had been consolidated from 95 to the current 62.

“USDA, along with other agencies, has been cutting back for the last three years,” Davidson said.

Last year, officials already were making cuts, including a 12.5 percent cut in support staff, he said. Staffing was reduced mostly through attrition, early retirement and buyouts, he said.

The consolidations arising from the 2008 legislation spell out two primary requirements that target offices for consolidation or closure — offices that have two or fewer employees and offices that are within 20 miles as the crow flies of another office, he said.

That’s where Bledsoe comes into the crosshairs. The office lost its director, Don Snow, to retirement a year ago, dropping the staff under the threshold. Also, the offices in Pikeville and Dayton are about 13 miles apart as the crow flies.

Davidson said farmers have the option of transferring their operations’ paperwork to an office in any adjacent county, if it’s closer to their farm.

The consolidations still are proposals, he said, but there’s little chance of any changes in plans.

“When Congress enacted our budget, it was based upon the premise of these cuts being made,” he said. “The bottom line is we have to cut, cut, cut. Our budget is 36 percent less in fiscal year 2012 than it was in 2011.”

Bledsoe County Mayor Bobby Collier, who also is a livestock producer, said farming will suffer from consolidation.

“That travel time takes farmers away from their operations, but I think it also means less participation,” he said. “I think it’s going to impact participation and conservation of natural resources.”

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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