Vilsack also pointed out that not only has the USDA’s operating budget been slashed but so have program budgets. “We reduced … the amount of money being paid to crop insurance companies and saved $4 billion towards deficit reduction. We’ve also seen conservation (program) reductions in terms of how much Congress has allocated. We anticipate further program cuts as Congress debates and discusses the farm bill.”

He insisted that despite the closings and consolidation “all the work being at USDA will continue to be done. It will just be transferred to a different location.”

Reports that food safety inspections would suffer due to the USDA cuts are incorrect, said Vilsack. Office closings in the food safety area “are about administrative personnel, not inspectors. We did not deal with inspectors at all. They will still be in every single plant … and (the closings) will have no impact whatsoever on our responsibility to ensure the safety of the food supply.”

Asked about the possibility of more agriculture cuts from the White House side, Vilsack refused to “preempt” Obama administration 2013 budget requests because “I don’t know if decisions have been finalized.” However, if deeper cuts are coming, the USDA plan takes that “into consideration … and gives us the flexibility, we believe, to respond to what may occur.”

Queried on the reluctance of lawmakers to allow USDA office closings in the past, Vilsack said the current effort is different. “In this particular circumstance … we need to get our financial house in order. That requires tough choices and calls.”

He does not “anticipate a significant amount of pushback” to the planned closures “once folks are shown the numbers. … It’s a little different context than in the past (due to a) year-plus of talk about the need to get our fiscal house in order.”

That anticipation may prove faulty, though, as complaints have begun about the lack of input on the plan from the agricultural sector.

However, the National Farmers Union put much of the blame for the closings on Congress. “It should come as no surprise that FSA and other USDA service and research facilities are closing because of the continued emphasis on spending reduction,” said Chandler Goule, NFU Vice President of Government Relations in a statement. “A ‘cut first, ask questions later’ attitude in Congress toward investing in agriculture and rural America is now showing its true cost to farmers, ranchers and rural citizens with these closures. Agriculture cannot be continually asked to do more than its fair share to resolve our nation’s deficit problems — our leaders must look elsewhere to find solutions.”

Goule said the USDA has “made great strides toward streamlining and economizing the department’s operations. Since 2010, Congress has cut USDA’s discretionary spending levels by about 12 percent, and USDA has done its best to prevent those reductions from affecting the quality of service that farmers and ranchers have come to expect. With the latest spending reductions, it was not possible to avoid painful cuts that will harm farmers and ranchers across the country.”

dbennett@farmpress.com