A lack of staffing and updated technology at USDA’s offices remain a big concern for farmers, as well as lawmakers.
“I don’t know if we’ve got folks still teleworking, or what the situation is, but we often have phones that go unanswered, because the people who they used to call aren’t there answering the phones anymore,” says Congressman Scott Franklin (R-FL) telling USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that service from the USDA isn’t what it should be post-pandemic.
Vilsack defended the USDA recently during a House Ag Appropriations hearing—but admitted that staffing at the agency is still an issue, and pointed the finger at Sonny Perdue, who was the previous USDA Secretary during the Trump administration.
“Let’s be clear about this—there were 6,500 fewer people working for the department when I came back. So, we are in the process of trying to rebuild the workforce, number one. Number two, we track the work that’s being done, loans are being, there hasn’t been a drop-off, in terms of the service to folks. In fact, I think our people at the FSA offices have done a remarkable job getting all of the disaster relief assistance out, getting the loans out, getting the CRP efforts out—they’ve really stepped up.”
Vilsack is asking for an additional 4,700 employees for the USDA in fiscal 2024. He’s also told lawmakers that it’s been difficult for USDA to retain employees, including Farm Service Agency staff, because their salaries and compensation packages aren’t as competitive as those in the private sector.
Vilsack also admits that the USDA is also behind on updating its technology.
“When I got this job first, I asked to send an e-mail to all our employees, I was told I couldn’t do that, I had to send 17 emails, because we had 17 systems. Mr. Chairman, we’re still working on this.”
Vilsack says he is pushing for the USDA to modernize its IT systems—and continue to seek solutions for staffing. Vilsack says 13 percent of the USDA workforce is already eligible for retirement—another 13 percent will be eligible over the next four years.
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Sources: NAFB News Service, USDA.