Vilsack told the AFBF that shedding 7,000 USDA employees “allowed us the flexibility to eliminate positions or restructure positions to be more relevant to the needs of our customers. Many of the positions we will fill will be at pay rates less than before. Given the reduced resources, our other choice of further reductions in force or furloughs would be very disruptive to the services that matter to you and those in rural America.”

While Vilsack said the workforce reductions were necessary, he acknowledged they come at a time “when more work was being demanded of our staff. For example, new programs called for by the 2008 farm bill. FSA, with a reduced workforce had to institute new disaster programs like SURE and the Livestock Forage and Indemnity programs. At the same time, Rural Development and FSA were beginning to implement the new Energy Title programs. Workloads were also increased in the area of nutrition assistance as a result of the recession and expanded need to help struggling families manage.”

Vilsack addressed the closing of 131 FSA offices specifically. “First, in making the decision to close an office, FSA relied on the 2008 farm bill criteria for determining what offices would be considered. Of the 131 offices on the list, 35 currently have no employees — the balance of the offices have either one or two employees and are within 20 miles of another FSA office. The work of these offices will be assigned to the adjoining county office, and personnel given the opportunity to transfer as well.”

The FSA office closings process will begin immediately with an aim to finish by July. Law requires that the closing of such offices — each within 20 miles of an FSA office that will remain open — must begin with a public hearing “in each county impacted by this decision. Those hearings will take place within 90 days.”

As for other agencies — including Food and Nutrition Services, NRCS and APHIS — office closings should take place by the end of the fiscal year in September.

“I know that some may be inconvenienced by this choice, but services will not be interrupted,” said Vilsack.

During a Jan. 10 press conference, Vilsack said the office closings must be put into “the proper context. … In order to deal with (the $3 billion in cuts), we had to take a look at specifically Congress’ direction in terms of our salaries and expense item — the item that funds personnel and operating expenses of all the mission areas with the exception of the Forest Service. … That resulted in having to make some serious decisions.”

Two paths could have been taken, said Vilsack. One option was to create “a comprehensive approach — looking at efficiencies, travel, conferences, supply purchases, personnel and retirement opportunities, process improvement and our physical footprint around the world.” The second option was to do “what is normally done, which is to furlough or reduce the number of USDA employees by laying off the most recently hired.”

The first option was chosen because lay-offs would have caused “a massive disruption in service to the people we care about.”