By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — A group of Iowa farmers is at odds with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the slated closure of the Decatur County Farm Service Agency.
The farmers earlier this month filed a lawsuit against the USDA and Sec. Tom Vilsack, who is also Iowa’s former governor, alleging the agency mistakenly targeted the Leon office and has refused to acknowledge its errors. Federal officials contend they reviewed their decision after the group of six farmers, Iowa Rep. Steve King and Sen. Chuck Grassley, questioned the closure.
At issue: 240 feet.
USDA leaders were directed by President Obama’s administration to trim their budget. One way they did this was to close Farm Service Agencies fewer than 20 miles from the next closest office with fewer than two full-time staffers, as allowed under the 2008 farm bill.
Decatur County’s office landed on the list because it was 19.99 miles from the
Oskaloosa Osceola office, according to USDA measurements. Additionally, the office had two full-time staffers, after three people took advantage of early retirement incentives a month before potential closures were announced, said Kent Politsch, spokesman for the U.S. Farm Service Agency.
The farmers contend the USDA used the wrong building location in its measurements. They hired an outside expert who found the Osceola office was actually 20.4 miles away, said Andrew Lesko, attorney for the farmers.
Those involved in filing the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, include farmers Ruby Smith, Mark Mendenhall, Mark Boles, Kevin Hullinger, Lovette Farms and Stephen Kyner.
“They weren’t interested in hearing our information,” Lesko said. “They used the wrong building, and the information they gave us absolutely proved our point. We are beyond 100 percent sure as can be the office is over 20 miles.”
“We tried to get them to remove the office from the list without a lawsuit, but they have stalled and ignored everyone. It’s baffling in an election year they are not listening to our arguments,” he said.
The USDA announced in January a proposed list of 131 farm service agencies in 36 states slated for closure, as part of a broader effort to cut spending, Politsch said. Department officials were told to cut 12.5 percent of their staffing costs. They will realize roughly $6.1 million in savings from closing farm service agencies beginning next year, he said. Other Iowa offices on the federal government’s list include those in Union and Appanoose counties.
Farm Service Bureaus oversee conservation efforts, disaster relief and financial assistance to struggling farmers, among other things, Politsch said. Officials in Decatur County say they help fuel the small town’s economy by bringing in additional business when farmers come to the office, because they pick up household needs and fuel.
“We are losing population,” said Mendenhall, who serves on the Decatur County Farm Service Agency board. “We don’t have a lot of business other than the agriculture business. If we lose our office it’s a reason for people to bypass Leon and Decatur County and go onto the next town, and that’s where they will do their business.”
Lesko and others involved in the lawsuit say it comes down to an issue of fairness, as well.
Residents and elected officials from six offices listed for closure in other states contested the decision, citing miscalculations similar to those in Decatur County. They were ultimately removed, according to the lawsuit. Decatur County’s agency remained on the list.
Leaders at the USDA reviewed their calculations for Decatur County after officials and residents contested it and found them to be correct, Politsch said.
“These are very difficult decisions to make,” Politsch said. “It’s not something we enjoy doing. We are attempting to be as cooperative as we can. We fully intend to take care of the producers in Decatur County.”
Contact Sheena Dooley at firstname.lastname@example.org