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Heitkamp requests more help for western ND FSA offices

Heidi Heitkamp

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to send additional staff members again to Farm Service Agency offices in western North Dakota.

"As we approach the end of the crop year, it is essential our county FSA offices have the resources to provide producers with timely assistance to help process disaster claims and related paperwork," Heitkamp wrote in the letter dated Thursday, Oct. 19.

During the summer, exceptional and extreme drought conditions affected much of western North Dakota, and the entire state had either drought conditions or abnormally dry conditions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in July sent extra workers to FSA offices in McHenry, Mountrail, Bowman, Golden Valley, Hettinger and Stark counties to help process requests from farmers and to reduce wait times. The "jump teams" were deployed until the end of September when the fiscal year ended.

Conditions have improved substantially across North Dakota. The U.S. Drought Monitor released on Thursday showed 2.86 percent of the state in severe drought, 33.53 percent in moderate drought and 35.5 percent abnormally dry.

However, the FSA offices still are dealing with applications for assistance due to the drought, as well as normal end-of-harvest demands that always are busiest for the offices. Understaffed offices also haven't been able to fill vacant positions.

Heitkamp, in a break from time on the Senate floor on Thursday, said in a phone conversation that her office has been hearing from staff in western North Dakota FSA offices that they are understaffed and unable to provide the one-on-one service that farmers and ranchers should be getting. Those services are "absolutely critical" in making sure producers have the resources for which they are qualified, she said.

Steven J. Peterson, acting administrator of FSA, in a statement issued Friday thanked Heitkamp for acknowledging the agency's efforts in North Dakota and pledged to provide "the best possible service to all of its customers."

"The Farm Service Agency continues to provide additional funding to assist North Dakota with disaster-related temporary staffing, overtime, travel and internal jump team support. Earlier this year, North Dakota FSA hired additional state and county level employees to help address additional disaster-related workload," Peterson's statement said. "USDA continues to work every day to ensure that all Americans, including those suffering from the effects of drought, wildfires, hurricanes and floods, receive prompt, courteous service from the staff in each of our 2,200 service centers and offices in our states and territories."

Heitkamp said she plans to reach out to senators in neighboring states that also experienced drought conditions this summer to ask them to weigh in.

The problem, however, goes beyond a sudden extra workload from the drought. Heitkamp says some western North Dakota FSA offices have not been fully staffed since losing employees to oilfield jobs during the Bakken oil boom. A hiring freeze, initiated prior to Perdue's start as agriculture secretary, has exacerbated the problem.

"(T)here are county offices in North Dakota operating with a single FSA employee, where there should otherwise be two or more employees," Heitkamp wrote in her letter to Perdue. "It is essential that in addition to deploying another jump team, the national office work with the state FSA office to expeditiously fill these vacancies with qualified candidates so our local offices can fulfill their mission."

Heitkamp said getting the hiring freeze lifted is part of a bigger fight over the USDA budget. While she said she is "all for" reducing the federal workforce, she doesn't believe job cuts should come in positions that are necessary for serving farmers and ranchers.

The 2017 drought also has means the current farm bill has been "stress tested for livestock relief" and provided some real-world examples of ways in which assistance could be better.

"We're going to have some ideas for what we want to do in the next farm bill," she said.

In the meantime, the current programs need to be administered to ranchers in a timely manner, which requires adequate staffing of FSA offices, she stressed.

Heitkamp also invites farmers and ranchers to visit her drought webpage, which has information about federal, state and local resources to help cope with the drought.