Farm Service Agency:

Characteristics of Small County Offices

RCED-99-162: Published: May 28, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 1999.

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Lawrence J. Dyckman
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Farm Service Agency (FSA), focusing on the: (1) number of FSA county offices with three or fewer permanent full-time employees; (2) characteristics of these offices, including their proximity to another county office, their workload, the level of FSA program benefits delivered, the relative contribution of farming to total county income, and the number of farms and farmland acres in the counties served by these offices; and (3) ways in which varying the criteria associated with these characteristics can affect the number of county offices that are candidates for closure and consolidation.

GAO noted that: (1) as of November 1998, 673 of the nearly 2,400 FSA county offices, or almost 28 percent, had three or fewer permanent full-time employees; (2) most small offices, about 58 percent, had three employees, and the remaining small offices had two or fewer employees; (3) about 28 percent of these small offices serve two or more counties; (4) small county offices are located in every state except Rhode Island; (5) the number of small offices in each state varies greatly, ranging from one to 88; (6) additionally, the number of small offices as a percentage of total county offices in each state varies greatly, ranging from about 2 percent in Iowa and South Dakota to 100 percent in Alaska; (7) about 86 percent of these small offices are located within an estimated 50-mile drive of another county office; about 43 percent are within 25 miles of another office; (8) on average, employees in small offices spent a higher percentage of their time on administrative duties (as opposed to program delivery duties) than their counterparts in larger offices in fiscal year 1997, about 46 percent and 32 percent, respectively; (9) regarding program benefits, small offices provided benefits to an average of 296 farmers in 1997, compared with an average of 848 for larger offices; (10) for 1997, the dollar value of these benefits averaged about $1 million in small offices and about $4 million in larger offices; (11) on average, farming accounted for about 1.3 percent of total income for the counties served by small offices in 1995-1996; this average was about 3.7 percent for counties served by larger offices; (12) in addition, small offices served areas (one or more counties) containing, on average, about 720 farms and 367,000 farmland acres in 1997, in contrast, larger offices served areas with, on average, about 836 farms and 402,000 farmland acres; (13) the number of FSA county offices that are candidates for closure and consolidation varies, depending on which characteristics are considered and the criteria set for these characteristics; (14) by changing the threshold for one of the three characteristics, the number of offices with potential for closure and consolidation will change; and (15) however, before closing and consolidating any small office, other factors need to be considered, including whether the office serves a sizeable population of minority, socially disadvantaged, or limited-resources farmers.

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