It could be the concluding chapter in the latest federal farm field office shuffle in Nebraska.

Final recommendations from the state level Thursday called for closing and consolidating 10 county-level Farm Service Agency offices and four from the ranks of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Brian Wolford, based in Lincoln as executive director of the Farm Service Agency, and Steve Chick, state conservationist with the NRCS, announced several changes in earlier plans as the proposed consolidations go forward to the national level.

Earlier versions called for shuttering as many as 12 FSA offices and six of those operated by its sister USDA agency.

One adjustment will keep the doors open at the Farm Service Agency office that serves Douglas and Sarpy counties from Omaha.

“This has been a 17-month process,” Wolford said. “Our employees were just very anxious to hear the final recommendations.”

Chick said NRCS plans that call for closing county offices in Harrisburg, Chappell, Benkelman and Loup City are not likely to be in place until after Oct. 1. Adjustments by reviewers in Washington are a possibility.

However, “I have no idea how long it will take to get that approval.”

The latest proposed FSA closings are in Banner, Boyd, Dakota, Deuel, Frontier, Garfield, Greeley, Hitchcock, Sherman and Thomas counties. Much of that might not happen until after Jan. 1.

The Farm Service Agency helps farmers sort out their eligibility for annual grain price support payments and other safety net opportunities, as well as their obligations as participants in the federal farm program.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service partners with them in designing and paying for various projects meant to conserve soil and water assets, such as grassed waterways and earthen terraces that slow erosion from sloping ground.

The consolidation efforts are driven by tighter federal budgets. The intent is largely to achieve greater efficiency by repositioning employees, rather than bumping them off the payroll.

“The purpose of this effort was to best position employees to handle the workload and serve producers,” Wolford said.

There was strong opposition to some of the county proposals, including in Dixon County, where an estimated 250 people turned out in Ponca to react to the FSA plan for consolidation with Dakota County.

The final recommendation from Wolford’s office now has the Dakota County office closing and Ponca as the consolidation site.

Although major staff cuts are not part of this move, the staffing ceiling at FSA has been lowered by about 300 permanent positions over the last 16 years. There are now 374 authorized slots in county offices in the state.

At the NRCS, said Chick, there were 365 employees statewide when he came to Lincoln in 1992. There are now 330, including 65 at the state office in Lincoln. A more ambitious farm bill in 2002 pushed staffing to about 350, but it has dropped again since.

Wolford said changes in earlier FSA proposals developed in 2007 mean both 30 percent fewer producers in the state and 30 percent fewer employees would be affected. “So I think that’s a positive thing.“

Besides the reconsideration for the Sarpy-Douglas office, there were FSA reprieves for Dixon, Dundy and Hayes counties that will keep them open.

Dakota County and Hitchcock County were added to the proposed closing/consolidations in the latest adjustments at FSA.

At the NRCS, plans for closing offices in Hayes and Dakota counties were scrapped.

Chick said that, depending on what happens with the 2007 farm bill now up for debate in Congress, and with the 2008 federal budget, he could be facing more painful consolidation decisions next year.

“I have no idea whether we will have to do it again next year,” he said. “What we’re trying to do now is to have as minimal an impact as possible this year.”

Wolford was reluctant to speculate on what adjustments might be made in Washington on state recommendations, but “for the most part, I believe this whole process was designed to be a local level approach. So outside of some minor suggestions, I’m not aware of major changes” in state level lists.

Reach Art Hovey at 523-4949 or at ahovey@alltel.net

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