Ducheneaux explains FSA management to National Farmers Union
DENVER — Zach Ducheneaux, President Biden’s appointee as administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency, told the National Farmers Union convention here this week that FSA’s performance during the pandemic lockdown had been beyond 100%, explained the reopening of offices, and said he hopes he can play a role in helping farmers achieve “economic freedom.”
On Thursday, Ducheneaux and Risk Management Agency Administrator Marcia Bunger also scheduled a news conference to highlight that producers who have not yet enrolled in the Agriculture Risk Coverage or Price Loss Coverage programs for the 2022 crop year have until March 15 to sign a contract. (See story below)
Ducheneaux, a fourth-generation rancher on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and former executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, was appointed FSA director last February, but due to the pandemic has worked largely from his home in South Dakota.
He stopped at the Farmers Union convention on his way to Washington to take up his duties in person at USDA headquarters.
The past year, he said, “has been the fastest year of my life. It has also been the most enjoyable.”
FSA distributes the farm subsidies that Congress establishes in response to weather and price problems. It is also in charge of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to idle land for conservation and wildlife habitat purposes. FSA also makes loans and guarantees loans for farmers who have trouble getting loans through regular banking channels.
Under the system for distribution of farm subsidies that goes back to the establishment of farm programs in the 1930s, county committees of farmers certify that someone is a farmer. Employees of the local county office take down a farmer’s information that may lead to government benefits and calculate those benefits.
Some farmers and Republicans in Congress have complained that farmers have not gotten good service during the pandemic because FSA offices have been closed or only partially open. But Ducheneaux told the NFU members that, despite having to work largely from home, FSA employees have been operating at more than 100% efficiency because they have distributed pandemic aid as well as regular farm subsidies.
Those offices are now open with 75% of the staff in the offices and all the offices are seeing farmers by appointment, he said. But in case any farmers are not satisfied, Ducheneaux gave the more than 450 attendees his office email and phone number and told them if they have any troubles to email him or call him personally: email@example.com, 202-941-4675.
Ducheneaux also addressed complaints from farmers, including members of the Democratic-leaning NFU, about the Biden administration’s slowness in appointing state executive directors of the Farm Service Agency and members of the state executive committees. These positions are prized political appointments, especially for Democrats in states that are overwhelmingly Republican.
Ducheneaux acknowledged that Biden so far has appointed only 34 state executive directors, but said “the quality of the folks we are picking is indicative of the time we are taking.”
“We are looking for team members at county committees, state committees, trying to get the SEDS [state executive directors] out as fast as we can,” he told the NFU.
The slowness is not an indication that agriculture is not important to the Biden administration, he said, pointing out that NFU President Rob Larew has been one of the leaders that Biden has consulted, particularly on the issue of concentration in agribusiness.
“If you think there are decisions getting kicked down the road, if you think there is a decision being stalled, let me know,” Ducheneaux said.
If a farmer disagrees with a decision by the county office, that decision can be appealed to the state executive director and the state committee. Many farmers believe that without a state executive director or committee in place, the appeal cannot go forward.
But in an interview Ducheneaux told The Hagstrom Report that “Appeals can still happen. We have processes in place to handle those appeals.”
Every state that does not have an appointed state executive director in place has a deputy director, he said.
FSA is also short-staffed and hiring with the expectation that employees will work partly from home, Ducheneaux said. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that he considers the option to work remotely a way to attract staff, and has a policy that employees can work from home as many as eight days out of 10.
Supervisors will make the ultimate decision about an employee’s schedule, Ducheneaux added.
“Everyone wants face-to-face contact,” he said, but noted that older farmers may still prefer to visit the county office while young producers may wish to handle business from their smartphones.
While USDA put out a policy requiring all employees including those of FSA county offices and county committee members to be vaccinated against COVID-19, that policy is not being enforced because of a court injunction, Ducheneaux said in the interview.
But speaking of the county committee members who did not want to get vaccinated, he said, “It is ironic to me that the county committees often enforce our programs against fellow producers for not following good scientific practices. Vaccination of livestock is one of them.”
USDA appointees, he said, are trying to highlight the animal vaccines and bring the argument about vaccines “back to the scientific facts of the effectiveness of the vaccines in limiting the severity” of COVID-19.
Ducheneaux repeated statements by Vilsack that USDA is working on getting congressionally provided pandemic aid to those producers who have not received it yet, but is also trying to simplify application processes.
Ducheneaux said he believes he is “aligned” with Vilsack’s views on helping farmers achieve more “economic freedom” through participation in USDA programs.
Too often, he said, farmers are “confined” to how they have conducted their business in the past.
–The Hagstrom Report
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