Sumter not among area FSA offices reopening amid shutdown

Farmers who grow commodity crops feeling impact from lack of USDA services

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 1/17/19

Three weeks after federal funding lapsed in nine of the government's 15 departments over a political stalemate about a $5.6 billion border wall separating the United States from Central America, farmers are feeling the effects.

U.S. Secretary of …

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Sumter not among area FSA offices reopening amid shutdown

Farmers who grow commodity crops feeling impact from lack of USDA services

Posted

Three weeks after federal funding lapsed in nine of the government's 15 departments over a political stalemate about a $5.6 billion border wall separating the United States from Central America, farmers are feeling the effects.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Thursday that many Farm Service Agency offices would reopen temporarily to perform limited services for farmers and ranchers, such as assistance with existing commodity loans and to provide 1099 tax documents by the IRS's deadline.

While each county has a designated FSA office, not all provide farm loans services. Only those that do are open, according to Richard Geddings, Sumter County's FSA executive director. The Sumter office remains dark.

"We got paid up until Christmas, but we missed a check, and my personal feeling is we'll get back-paid for that but if you don't budget and you're not prepared for this, it could put you in a pinch for people who live paycheck to paycheck," Geddings said.

Employees in Barnwell, Clarendon, Colleton, Florence, Lee, Marion, Orangeburg, Saluda, Spartanburg and Williamsburg will be among about 2,500 FSA employees across the nation to return to work without pay on Thursday, Friday and Tuesday.

Geddings and his three employees are among the some 800,000 furloughed federal employees who either are considered essential and are required to work without pay or who have been on a forced vacation since the shutdown began in late December.

"I just want to get back to work to serve our farmers and the people who provide our food source," the 16-year public servant said.

He said his staff all have money saved, but the effect on their clients - Sumter's farmers - is evident in their lack of services.

There are about 1,500 farms in Sumter, he said. One person or family can own more than one farm. About 200-300 of those farmers participate in USDA programs through the FSA.

Right now, they're trying to make plans for planting season. What kind of crops to plant and how much. Farmers can't report acres through the FSA, which is required for insurance. They need to buy, update or replace machinery. They need to get feed, chemicals and fertilizer, and many farmers depend on loans to cover operating costs.

Perdue extended a Jan. 15 deadline for agricultural producers to apply for payments under the Market Facilitation Program to provide relief for increased tariffs incurred from a trade war between Presidents Trump's administration and China.

Perdue said in a USDA news release on Jan. 8 the program had been making direct payments to farmers who have "suffered trade damage."

"Using existing funds, we were able to keep FSA offices open as long as possible but unfortunately had to close them when funding ran out," he said. "We will therefore extend the application deadline for a period of time equal to the number of business days FSA offices were closed, once the government shutdown ends."

Farmers who had already applied for the program and certified their 2018 production "have continued to receive payments."

In South Carolina, farmers affected by the third setback in what one Sumter farmer called a quadruple whammy have delayed that certification of crops.

Chris Sumpter, a cattleman who farms for beef in Borden, said recent four to five weeks of "consistent rain" stopped many local farmers from harvesting the rest of their crops from the fall of 2018. At this point, he said, the soaked soybeans, cotton and peanuts have dropped in quality, and farmers will be losing revenue on what's left.

That comes after the historic flood of 2015 and subsequent drought. Add on a government shutdown where they can't receive reimbursements, commodity loans and other services, and Sumpter, also a Sumter county councilman, said "this year is going to be really tough."

"There's 1 percent of this country that farms and it's getting more and more difficult for us to do this with these unforeseen weather circumstances," he said. "Throw in the political issues, [and] it really makes things more challenging. [Politics], we have control over to an extent. Weather is in the hands of the good Lord."

Sumpter has not been directly affected by the shutdown of the federal government and shuttering of Sumter's FSA office because he is not a row-cropper - he does not grow crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts, etc. - but he said he knows local colleagues who rely on FSA-distributed production loans.

"We've got to have seed in the ground at a certain period of time, which for corn is March. If the revenue isn't there to fund it, there won't be any seed going into the ground," Sumpter said.

Down the road, that could affect "everyone at some point. If there's not a lot of a product, prices will increase at the grocery store."

"It's not like an industrial plant where you can put it in overdrive and hire more staff and put in more to make up the difference," he said. "You only get one chance at this a year."

Ricky Atkinson rushed to harvest all the corn and soybeans from his family farm in Lee County before Hurricane Florence lollygagged through the Carolinas in September, so he also has not been "hugely impacted" by the shutdown.

"I think it's ridiculous," he said.

He and his family used the FSA office in Lee County recently to report crops and "do some commodity loans with them, and they're a great resource to have."

His uncle, Wade Atkinson, with the Lee County FSA, said the office reopened Thursday solely to accept payments.

He said the next two weeks are critical.

"By Feb. 1, a bunch of people will be hollering," Atkinson said. "Those who've got to sell their crops from 2018 and finance 2019."

He said he finds it hard to make sense of the politics with both sides acting like "a hard-headed couple in divorce" but that he wants both sides to figure out how to move on and reopen the government.

"If I was president, I wouldn't know what to do. Some people say let them in, and some people say don't let them in. I don't know what's right," he said. "These people are coming here because they're starving to death and want a better life, but we're the only country that lets them in."

If anyone knows about the necessity of what American farmers produce, in spite of, during and regardless of political infighting or government shutdowns, it's a farmer.

Sumter cattleman Sumpter said we all need to "really consider the individuals that we vote for and make sure they have an understanding of agriculture and the importance of it."

"Without a farmer, you'd be naked and hungry," he said. "If we don't have food, we can't have good health. Without good health, we can't do anything."