USDA has decided to stop plans to close or consolidate up to 713 county Farm Service Agency after farm-state senators demanded that USDA show them how the closings would improve services to growers.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss announced the decision after Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns notified him USDA was halting the plan in a letter the Georgia senator received Oct. 18.

“I appreciate USDA’s decision to halt its plan to close an excessive number of county and local FSA offices,” Chambliss said in a statement. “I had serious concerns with the plan, including USDA’s failure to demonstrate that FSA Tomorrow would yield better service for producers.”

Johanns had tried to cast the proposed office closings as a part of a plan called FSA Tomorrow that was designed to improve services to farmers while closing some county offices and making others operate more efficiently.

“Although this specific modernization plan has been abandoned, I sincerely hope that the Farm Service Agency will work to improve service to producers and the agriculture community,” said Chambliss. “We appreciate the work of FSA employees in the field, and I encourage FSA headquarters to focus on improved program delivery, including finding solutions to computer software development issues and releasing long-overdue farmer payments.”

Chambliss also announced cancellation of a scheduled Oct. 20 hearing to bring top USDA officials to testify about the proposed closings before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The hearing was prompted by an amendment introduced by Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., requiring the agriculture secretary to thoroughly analyze the impact before any offices would be closed. The Senate passed the amendment to the agricultural appropriations bill unanimously.

“This is tremendous news for our producers who rely on their local Farm Service Agency offices to provide a wide range of agricultural services,” said Talent. “I was especially concerned because the office closure plan was issued with little or no consultation with our local offices and producers. We all want our FSA offices to operate as efficiently as possible, but the key with the way we handle these offices must be service and accessibility to the agriculture community and to our producers.”

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