Ever wonder how federal farm loan decisions are made? The following article tells the story.
Caveat: this article is not meant as an indictment of the FSA, any specific FSA agent, or FSA Committee member. It is meant to call attention to the problems with the process, and to encourage ALL farmers to participate in it. I’ve been told it is ‘politically insensitive’. But sometimes politically insensitive stories need to be told.
Most federal loan programs are administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). FSA is a branch of USDA, but it has Agents in each County (in sparsely populated or non-agricultural areas Agents sometimes cover multiple Counties) that evaluate loan applications based on USDA criteria.
But who are these Agents, how are they hired, and who do they report to? The answer is that they are hired by and mainly report to FSA County Committees, even though they are paid by the USDA. So what are County Committees and who is on them? County Committees are made up individuals elected by farmers who participate in FSA programs within their administrative area (or County). According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “To be eligible to serve on an FSA county committee, a person must participate or cooperate in a program administered by FSA, be eligible to vote in a county committee election and reside in the local administrative area in which the person is a candidate”.
This means that in general, the biggest and best know farmers within a County (or ‘administrative area’) are elected to sit on the County Committee, and have discretion in hiring and overseeing the Agents and County FSA Office staff. And you don’t have to believe that JFK was assassinated by the CIA or that the government is hiding information about an alien landing in Roswell to imagine that the composition of the County Committee affects the loan decisions of County Agents. If you worked for a bank, would you deny the bank president, his cousin, or even his neighbor a home loan without checking with him first? If you answered ‘yes’ I wouldn’t suggest that you pursue a career in the financial industry.
It also means that the federal system is set up in a way that benefits the largest and best connected farmers, and that it often fails individuals who are outside of this group. For instance, the federal Farm Bill includes specific programs and set-asides directed toward ‘socially disadvantaged farmers’ – specifically women and minorities. Yet every year a significant percentage of the money specifically allocated for socially disadvantaged farmers in the Farm Bill goes unused in virtually every state.
According to an anonymous source who works closely with FSA at a high level: “the system is set up to fail minority farmers, small farmers, and anyone who isn’t well connected with in their county. The system itself is broken”. Not only that. But according to this source: “every county office has a file with the names of the biggest farmers in the County, and every time a program application date is coming up, they call these farmers and let them know”. FSA Agents should be reaching out their constituencies, but not just to a select group of large farmers. If you are a 40 acre organic vegetable farmer marketing directly, I’m willing to bet you don’t get those kinds of calls.
So how do we solve this problem? The answer is not simple, and at the federal level FSA has attempted to address it. But according to my source “federal attempts to make County Boards more diverse have often simply resulted in the election of the wives of farmers who would have otherwise been seated, which doesn’t really change the composition of the Committees to which FSA Agents answer, and certainly doesn’t do much to solve the central problems”.
So short of a complete overhaul of the FSA system of County Committees (which is highly unlikely), we are left with one option. Small, progressive, and sustainable farmers need to get involved! They need to be nominating one another (or themselves) for County Committees, and they need to be voting in County Committee elections. If you are a farmer, please consider participating in your local FSA County Committee election, nominating someone you trust and respect, or running yourself. Secretary Vilsack has recently announced that this year’s FSA County Committee elections which will take place August 1st. I encourage all farmers out there to participate in these elections, preferably as a candidate, but at the very least, in the voting process. To learn how, follow the instructions in this post. And if you have any questions please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Taylor Reid, BeginningFarmers.org