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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 11, 2007

Albany FSA to close
County office buys the farm

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Local farmers are disappointed and angry that the federal farm-service office in Albany County is slated to close.

Farmers will now have to travel to the Schoharie-Schenectady County Farm Service Agency in Cobleskill.

The FSA, with offices across the country, manages farm commodity, credit, conservation, and disaster and loan programs as dictated by Congress. There are over 2,300 FSA county offices in the continental United States. New York State has 43 offices, soon to be 40.

Brymer Humphreys, the state’s executive director of the FSA, said the final proposal calls for three county offices in New York to close — Albany will merge with Schoharie County, Sullivan County will merge with Orange County, and Yates County will merge with Steuben County.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has vowed she will continue to fight plans to consolidate offices in New York, including the one in Albany County, according to her spokesman Eric Bederman.

"We’re on the chopping block and still are," said Jim Abbruzzese as he picked apples on Tuesday afternoon. The Abbruzzese family owns Altamont Orchards and Jim Abbruzzese chairs the Albany County FSA committee, elected to the post by other farmers.

"I feel responsible," he said, "since I’m the chairman on watch"maybe the last chairman of Albany County."

Abbruzzeese said he was surprised with the decision since so many farmers spoke so passionately against the closing at a public hearing, held in the New Scotland office; about 80 to 100 attended the hearing and no one spoke in favor of the merger. He called the widespread support "heart-warming."

"Because of the outpouring of support from the community, I thought it wouldn"t close," said Abbruzzese, citing a Sept. 13 Enterprise editorial, "Saving our farms a burning need," with a cartoon of the American Gothic farmer, pitchfork in hand, as the barn behind him burns. "I was wrong," said Abbruzzese. "It just doesn’t seem fair to me."

Abbrussese praised the hard work of the Albany county FSA staff. "It’s an efficient office," he said. "They don’t bullshit," he said alluding to waste in other government offices. "It pisses me off," he said.

Farmers with small operations, especially dairy farmers who have to milk twice a day, simply can’t spare half a day to travel to Cobleskill, said Abbruzzese. Beyond that, he said, the local office would "reach out" to farmers in need, himself included.

In 1988, when frost destroyed two-thirds of his crop, said Abbruzzese, Thomas Della Rocco, the executive director of the Albany County FSA office, "reached out to me." Abbruzzese "went through the process" of applying for disaster relief and was rewarded with a check that sustained him through a difficult time.

"This office has kept me in business," said Abruzzese. "It’s an asset to the whole community. Everyone enjoys coming out to the farm and getting fresh fruit."

Mary Ann May, who was also elected to the committee, raises hay and sheep in Westerlo. "I’ve been here 60 years," she said.

She, too, is disappointed with the closing. She pointed out the importance of Albany being the state’s capital.

"We have legislators"who can see our operations," said May.

She also said, "Lots of times, you say, ‘I should go to the FSA office.’ If you postpone it, you miss the deadline"Now I do it on my way into Albany." Making the trip to Cobleskill won't be so easy, she said.

May knows the farmers in her district personally and is aware of what their needs are, she said. "They come to you a lot," she said. That closeness and knowledge will be lost with the merger, she said.

"If we merge," May went on, "we’d have to build something feasible for both counties. You’re talking a lot of expense"We’re totally comfortable where we are for very little rent."

"Be more efficient"

At last month’s hearing, several speakers pointed out that Albany County is facing strong development pressure, making the need for farm support more crucial.

Asked if shutting the Albany office will mean more farms in the county will go out of business, Humphreys said, "No, because much of what the FSA does is administer and pay out on programs. They will drive that extra distance to get the help they need," he said of Albany county farmers.

"How far would you drive to get a $500 check"" asked Humhreys. "Or would you leave it lying on the table""

For owners of small farms, the check may be more in the neighborhood of $75, said Abbruzzese. "They won’t make the ride because it’s not worth it, even though they’re entitled to it," said Abbruzzese, again stressing how hard it is for some farmers to leave their farms.

"Our resources are limited," Humphreys said. "Other business are centralizing as well," he said, giving the example of small grocery stores closing, replaced by supermarkets. "The FSA offices were set up 70 years ago. With today’s ability to travel, there’s less need for local offices."

Humphreys said he wasn’t working under any federal quota of a certain number of offices to be closed. The directive, he said, was to "be more efficient."

Services from the United States Department of Agriculture will still be available for Albany county producers "in a larger, more efficient office," he said.

Della Rocco, who currently directs both the offices located in Albany and in Schoharie counties, said this week, "Spending half my time in each works pretty well. Farmers are pleased with the management. No one has too far to drive. I don’t see how the merger will improve service."

"Back from the brink"

The original plan called for closing eight county offices, but the offices in Broome, Herkimer, Oswego, Rensselaer, and Suffolk counties were spared, "pulled back from the brink," said Humphreys.

Asked why, Humphreys said, "Listening to the producers in those counties and re-looking at some of the information."

Of the offices that are closing, he said, "We don’t have the volume of business there."

Albany County has 484 farms, according to results from 2002 from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

In 2006, Humphreys said earlier, the Albany County FSA office paid 153 producers, far lower than the county average statewide of 300.

In addition to looking at the number of farms and programs in each county, Humphreys and his committee, in making the initial recommendation to close eight offices, also looked at the location of the offices in relation to other FSA sites, and he looked at the size of the offices, as well as the number of staff members.

The Albany County office employs an executive director, Della Rocco, who is shared with the Schoharie office, and two program technicians. With the merger, one of the program technicians posts will be cut, Della Rocco said earlier.

Six of the eight original counties originally slated for closure had executive directors who managed two offices. A staff of four to five employees, including an executive director, Humphreys said earlier, is ideal. "A larger staff creates a better work environment," he said.

"We would like to have enough volume to sustain three to four people," he said this week.

At the Albany county office, the FSA pays $55,000 annually in rent, utilities, travel expenses, and temporary staffing, Mark Dennis, executive officer of the FSA, said earlier. The figure does not include the salaries of the full-time employees.

"One thing these three counties had in common," said Humphreys of Albany, Sullivan, and Yates counties, "our sister agency, NRCS, is also closed there." The Natural Resources Conservation Service, he said, offers "more technical" services, such as planning conservation projects or waterways to control erosion.

"Our last hope"

"This is the final proposal," said Humphreys. The closing will become official "within a week or two," he estimated on Tuesday, once it is announced by the federal Secretary of Agriculture’s Office.

"We think we can make some accommodations to help them so they don’t have to travel so far," said Humphreys of Albany’s office merging with Schoharie’s. The Albany County office is currently located at the William Rice Extension Center on Martin Road in New Scotland. "We’re proposing to move further east from Cobleskill," said Humphreys.

"I would prefer having the Albany office stay open until a suitable location is found," said Abbruzzese.

If the merger goes through, he said, the board he now chairs would merge with the Schoharie-Schenectady board and have eight members for 2008. "We would re-draw the map," he said, and the board would then be scaled back to a required five members.

Asked when the Albany County office will shut its doors, Humphreys said, "We have to hold it open for 120 days."

The process could be delayed further, he said, depending on the Farm Bill that has already been passed in the House of Representatives and has yet to be voted on in the Senate; the bill says offices nationwide can’t be closed for a year.

"We’re praying the Senate keeps that in place," Abbruzzese said of the moratorium on closing FSA offices, "until a new administration is in."

He added, "I don’t know of any farmer who’s in a position to sue."

Clinton, who introduced the legislation, "will continue to fight" the United States Department of Agriculture’s plans to consolidate offices in New York, said her spokesman, Bederman, in an e-mail to The Enterprise yesterday.

She had introduced the legislation this summer to block the closure of FSA, Rural Development, and NRCS field offices across New York and the nation; the language was accepted into the 2007 Farm Bill passed by the House.

"Senator Clinton has repeatedly called on the USDA to stop planned office consolidations and closures, underscoring that accessible local field offices are a critically needed resource for New York’s farmers and rural communities," said Bederman.

"Finding a way to improve the quality of USDA field offices without shortchanging our farmers should be the course of action, not a restriction in local services for those who utilize these important programs and services," Clinton wrote in a July 24 letter to Secretary of Agriculture Michael Johanns.

Clinton went on, "These offices were designed and located to effectively serve farmers and I can see no evidence that the proposed closings will do anything other than inconvenience farmers. Further, the proposal to close these field offices lacks consistency and organization across the board. The offices should remain open until we see where the emphasis of the 2007 Farm Bill lies and how it will lead the agriculture industry in the next five years."

Abbruzzese concluded of the moratorium, "It’s our last hope."

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