Farmers and local officials fight back against Farm Service office relocation
Farmers delivered this message Wednesday: The federal government would save no money by closing the Farm Service Agency office in St. Mary Parish.
The possibility of consolidating St. Mary’s FSA office with the Iberia Parish office is included in a budget reduction proposal by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to close 259 offices across the country for a total savings of $60 million. Along with the St. Mary office in Franklin, four other FSA offices in the state would be closed in the proposal — Bossier City, Colfax, Denham Springs and Lafayette.
Farmers and others packed the parish council meeting room in the courthouse Wednesday for a public hearing called by the state FSA for input on the local plan.
State FSA Executive Director Willie Cooper told the crowd of 75 or more that the closures proposed by the USDA were based on two criteria — offices with two or fewer employees and offices within 20 miles of another office. He explained that Euclidean miles, or as the crow flies, were used to determine the latter.
According to the Bing map on the USDA’s own website, the two offices are 28.2 miles apart in road distance.
Farmer Jessie Breaux disputed the mileage criteria saying the offices are more than 20 miles apart and added, “We have an office that is functioning quite well.”
“No one will lose their job in this process,” Cooper said.
St. Mary already shares a county executive director with Iberia Parish, Tyler Musselwhite, who divides his time between the two offices.
St. Mary also has one administrative assistant, Juanita Clements. If the Franklin office were to close, Clements would have the opportunity to transfer to the Iberia office, said FSA District 3 Director Craig McCain.
“What savings will the USDA have by closing the St. Mary Parish Office?” asked Farm Bureau representative Mark Chauvin during the public comment session. “It is my understanding that there is no expense to the USDA in either rent or utilities.”
President Paul Naquin confirmed that assertion.
The parish has been furnishing office space free of charge to FSA for more than 40 years, Naquin said.
“Consolidate is good, but when you try to consolidate an office that’s not costing y’all any money and put the burden on the farmers, I fully disagree,” Naquin said.
“A more cost efficient office cannot be found in the area,” said J.P. Hebert of the Soil & Water Conservation District.
Chauvin also said that farmers in St. Mary produce the most sugarcane in the state and is home to two of the state’s 11 sugar mills.
Naquin said he will be hand delivering letters objecting to the closure to Louisiana members of the Congressional delegation when he goes to Washington, D.C. later this week.
“Why are we being penalized for being self-sufficient?” asked Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin). “It’s bordering on silliness, so send the word back … that this one just doesn’t make any sense.”
McCain said written comments on the proposal may be submitted up until 10 days after Wednesday’s public hearing. For information on where to send the comments call (318) 473-7721 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.