The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Monday it will close nearly 260 offices nationwide, a move that won praise for cutting costs but raised concerns about the possible effect on food safety. Secretary Tom Vilsack said the goal of the agency’s “Blueprint for Stronger Service” was to save $150 million a year in the $145 billion budget. About $90 million had already been saved by reducing travel and supplies, and the closures were expected to save another $60 million, he said. The plan calls for 259 offices, labs and other facilities to be closed, affecting the USDA headquarters in Washington and operations in 46 states. Seven foreign offices also will be shut.
Tony Jackson, Farm Service Agency (FSA) director of external affairs in Washington, D.C., told the Tribune Wednesday morning that the Powell office would stay open.
“There are no FSA offices in Wyoming proposed” to close, Jackson said.
The FSA, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Powell-Clark’s Fork Conservation District will continue operating in the USDA Service Center on U.S. 14-A just west of Powell.
The USDA said last year it would shut down 10 agricultural research stations, including the only one in Alaska, where scientists were seeking ways to use the vast waste generated by the largest wild fishery in the nation to make everything from gel caps for pills to fish meal for livestock feed.
Other parts of the announcement were a surprise. Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager for the Food Safety and Inspection Service in Minneapolis, learned his office would be closed, along with those in Madison, Wis., and Lawrence, Kan.
“They wiped out the entire Midwest,” said Lorenz, whose office handles all federal inspections of meat, poultry and egg products in Minnesota, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.
Vilsack said he didn’t anticipate widespread layoffs, in part because 7,000 USDA employees took early retirements over the past year. He said the agency is trying to do more with less in light of federal cutbacks, and many of the offices to be closed had few employees or were near other offices.
The USDA manages a wide array of programs, from emergency aid for farmers to grants for rural development and food assistance programs for the poor. Along with the Agricultural Research and Food Safety and Inspection services, six other departments will be affected by closures, including the Farm Service Agency and Rural Development.
Vilsack said public hearings will be held in counties where Farm Service Agency offices are to close. That department handles disaster assistance, farm loans and crop subsidies, among other programs. The USDA plans to shut 131 FSA offices in 32 states, with largest number of closures in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.
Vilsack said the closures and other cost-cutting measures will allow the agency to keep investing in programs that make agriculture more productive, including maintaining credit to farmers, providing aid to beginning farmers and scientific research.
“Over the long haul, we believe farmers and ranchers across the country will be better served by the choices we made,” he said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)