The U.S. Department of Agriculture is one of the biggest federal employers in Nebraska, and the end of a 16-day federal shutdown Thursday meant all of those workers were headed back to the office.
That included 410 at state and county offices of the Farm Service Agency, almost 300 with state and county offices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and 65 at the National Soil Survey Center in Lincoln.
“After having our entire staff be off for two and a half weeks, we're getting back up to speed,” said Jon Hempel, the boss at the world's largest soil research facility. “But, amazingly, everybody reported to work today with a smile on their face. And they're ready to dig back into things.”
That could be taken as a reference to the 200 two-gallon buckets of dirt the soil center normally would have received for analysis during the shutdown period. But the resumption of USDA services also is a matter of pay dirt.
That means resolving the delays that have held back about $50 million in annual payments to Nebraska landowners enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and something close to $300 million in direct federal payments to farm program participants who grow corn and other qualifying crops.
Those normally flow at the start of the fiscal year, Oct. 1.
“We'd hope that a large percentage of those would be out late next week and the last week in October,” said Dan Steinkruger, state director of the Farm Service Agency.
“Direct payments are also behind because of the shutdown,” Steinkruger said, “but I think we’re looking at the last week of October, the first week of November there.”
Craig Derickson, Steinkruger's counterpart with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said some of his state-level staff already were at work when he got there at about 6:30 Thursday morning.
“I'm not shy about saying that we have a very dedicated group of people at the NRCS in Nebraska,” Derickson said.
Although most USDA agencies have their state-level offices in Lincoln, the NRCS also has 77 at the county level, and the Farm Service Agency has 71.
The weeks after harvest are prime time for installing soil terraces -- the step-like shapes carved into slopes to retard erosion -- and Derickson sounded almost reverent as he talked about his workers getting back to that mission.
“It's been a continuum for decades in Nebraska and all along the eastern border and especially in Southeast Nebraska,” he said. “We just see all these beautiful fields as terraced and as well-maintained as they are.”
While there was a sense of federal order being restored Thursday, there were some challenges to get past in the short term -- and others ahead.
Summoning the workforce back to the workplace had to be done through something other than normal means because various federal bosses had been ordered to stop all electronic communication during the congressional impasse on spending.
Derickson said he had to resort to “calling trees” and other methods to get the word out on the end of the shutdown and restored funding.
Steinkruger, a 36-year veteran of USDA ranks, said he was “caught off guard by this furlough and that the shutdown lasted this long. I just thought we'd see a resolution a lot quicker this time.”
During his time away from his desk, “my wife helped me with a few lists,” Steinkruger said, “and I did a few extra jobs at home. So now I'm caught up there, but I'm behind at the office.”