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From left, Peter Solemsaas, Stark County Farm Service Agency director, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Aaron Krauter, former state Farm Service Agency director, discuss drought- and staffing-related issues at Dickinson's FSA office on Thursday, Aug. 10.

Heitkamp meets with short-staffed Stark County Farm Service Agency

DICKINSON, N.D. — Staffing-shortages on top of an unusually intense drought is not making life easy for Stark County's Farm Service Agency (FSA), which is tasked with dispensing relief assistance to drought-affected farmers and ranchers.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., sat down Thursday morning, Aug. 10, at Dickinson's FSA office with Stark County FSA director Peter Solemsaas and Aaron Krauter, former state Farm Service Agency director, to discuss how the FSA is dealing with these challenges and what she could do to help their efforts.

Heitkamp is on a two-day "Drought and Farm Bill Tour across Western North Dakota," with additional stops in Manning, Killdeer, Watford City, Halliday, Richardton and Mandan.

Staffing concerns

The session opened with a discussion of the county office's staffing shortages. Solemsaas said his agency lost two workers this spring, including a full-time worker in Dickinson. He has had difficulty filling the positions because of the Trump administration's hiring freeze on federal workers.

While the president lifted the freeze in April, Solemsaas explained to Heitkamp's surprise that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to keep the freeze in place for FSA employees.

"They haven't allowed us to fill the permanent (position) in Dickinson yet," Solemsaas said. "We've had less bodies to get the work done, plain and simple."

But as difficult as the staffing shortages are now, Solemsaas said they are going to get tougher. He said when the harvest season is finished this fall, the office will have 450 to 500 Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) applications to process, with each application taking at least an hour to process.

According to the USDA, the LFP is an program authorized by the 2014 farm bill that "provides compensation to eligible livestock producers who have suffered grazing losses" when there is a "qualifying drought condition."

When Heitkamp asked what other extra work they will have as part of the drought, Solemsaas said they will also need to deal with 70 to 80 Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) requests. NAP is a "federally funded program that provides financial assistance to producers of noninsurable crops" when production is hampered by "natural disasters," according to the USDA.

NAP applications are "more complicated (than LFP's), take more time, and you are probably going to have several days into each one of them," Solemsaas said.

"It's like trying to empty a gallon bucket with a teaspoon," Heitkamp said, referring to the challenge facing Stark County FSA employees in dealing with the extra workload brought on by the drought.

She said her main concern is making sure North Dakota farmers and ranchers get the funds guaranteed to them in the farm bill.

"At the end of the day, this is really about getting these ranchers paid," Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp told Solemsaas she wanted material to advocate in Washington, D.C., to help alleviate the plight of drought-stricken farmers.

"I know these are really technical questions, but we are trying to make the case for more staffing for you," she said.

Heitkamp mostly steered clear of politics, but did lament that the Trump administration and Congress were partially at fault for these problems.

"I think this is all part of the (Trump) administration's budget, when they are talking about cutting these offices by 31 to 35 percent. But the point is until they make that decision, in Congress we shouldn't be starving (FSA) offices," Heitkamp said.

Some staffing relief may be in store for Stark County's FSA office. In late July, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that additional FSA employees would be deployed to drought-stricken counties in North Dakota. The previous week, Heitkamp penned a letter to Perdue requesting that the USDA fill vacant FSA positions in North Dakota.

The farm bill

Though it's been a difficult year, Krauter was pleased about the improvements he has already seen in the 2014 farm bill as compared to before it was enacted. "This has been a huge change from the last farm bill (the 2014 farm bill), to make those livestock provisions (LFP) permanent."

Heitkamp agreed that the legislation marked an improvement, but she is still confident she and her congressional colleagues can do better with the 2018 farm bill.

"We know that (droughts are) going to happen, so we need to get prepared for it," she said.

Heitkamp specifically pointed to ranchers as people who could benefit from an improved farm bill.

"I don't think the farm bill provides an adequate safety net for ranchers," Heitkamp said.

In the meantime, Heitkamp is squarely focused on staffing the FSA.

"These Farm Service Agency positions are critical to actually helping farmers navigate the farm programs," she said. "This isn't people making (pointless) work or sitting around with their finger in their ear. These are people that need to be here when farmers come through the door."