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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 9, 2012
ALBANY COUNTY Dozens of farmers pleaded for the Voorheesville Farm Service Agency office to stay open during a public hearing on Tuesday morning. The 40-year-old office is among 131 offices nationwide slated to be closed.
Among the two-dozen people who praised the office and its director, Thomas Della Rocco, was Mark Quandt, executive director of the Northeast Regional Food Bank, which runs a farm on Pauline Williman’s family land in the Helderbergs to stock its food pantries and soup kitchens. He wouldn’t have been able to maintain that farm without the help of the FSA, he said. Noting that it has become popular to disparage the government, Quandt said, “government also does a lot of good things,” and the FSA office is an example of that.
Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture announced the plan, which also closes rural development offices, food safety and inspection offices, and soil survey offices as well as consolidating cell phone plans and standardizing training. The USDA expects that it will save $150 million annually, with $60 million saved by closing offices, laboratories, and other facilities, according to USDA spokesman Matt Herrick.
It costs just over $13,000 a year to run the Albany office, said James Barber, the state’s director of the FSA. According to the Albany County executive’s office, though, the FSA pays $20,000 annually for rent in the Martin Road building that also houses the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the county’s soil and water conservation district.
The staff from the office would be added to the nearest FSA office, which is in Schoharie. Albany executive director, Thomas Della Rocco, already spends some of his time there.
The FSA has shed 12 percent of its employees since last spring, said federal FSA administrator Bruce Nelson, so there isn’t enough staff to maintain all of the more than 2,000 offices. “We don’t want to cut more people, we need them, so we’re looking at brick and mortar offices,” he said.
The ones being considered for closure are those that have fewer than two staff members and are within 20 miles of another office, as the crow flies. Before closing the offices, the USDA has to hold public hearings, which, Barber said, let the department know if there are issues beyond those two criteria that should be considered.
Many people at the hearing on Tuesday noted that the state capitol is in Albany, which affords it the unique ability to use its 500 farms to advocate for agriculture with state, national, and international lawmakers who come to New York’s seat of government.
There are three other offices in New York that are slated to be closed, Barber said. They are in Saratoga, Sullivan, and Yates counties.
Asked if there is a certain number of offices that could remain open, Barber said, “I don’t know what margin, if any, there is.”
Within the next 90 days, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will decide on the final closures, Barber said.
Following the floods after Tropical Storm Irene, Vilsack walked damaged fields in the area with Congressman Paul Tonko, Tonko said this week, adding that Vilsack has seen the impact of farms on the economy. He also, like many who spoke at the hearing, noted the importance of maintaining an FSA office in the state’s capital county and the ease of “one-stop shopping” for farmers who use the services of the FSA, the cooperative extension, and the soil and water conservation district offices that are all in the same building.
Tonko encourages people to contact his office, at 465-0700, to share their stories about using the FSA office so that he can better advocate for its continued operation.
By Saranac Hale Spencer
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