Farm office in danger of closing

COVINGTON -- The Morgan County Farm Service Agency, serving Newton County farmers, is in danger of closing.

Executive Director Pat Ray got word Jan. 9 that the office was on a proposed closing list. According to the 2008 Farm Bill, offices with two or less employees that are within 20 miles of another office are automatically considered for closing. The Morgan County office had three employees when the budget year started, but lost an employee due to retirement. Ray said she was never told she would not be able to hire a replacement.

The office provides services to Newton, Morgan, Jasper and Greene counties. Administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, FSA provides loans to farmers to purchase land, livestock, equipment, feed, seed and supplies and also administers grants and provides conservation and disaster assistance, among other services.

If closed, the responsibilities of the Morgan office would be transferred to other offices, including Walton and Oconee, with Newton being assigned to Walton.

"Our argument is Walton and Oconee are suburbs of Athens and Atlanta and they don't have even a fourth of the agriculture we have in these counties," Ray said.

Fred Greer is a Newton farmer who's upset about the closing. Greer said the Morgan office is "a showcase of a well-run operation." He said the closing is about nothing more than politics by an administration that claims to be green but shuts down services like FSA that help farmers be more efficient. The Morgan office is "in the heart of a strong agricultural district," that will be split if the offices are consolidated, and closing it will make it more difficult for farmers who will have to travel longer distances, Greer said.

A required town hall meeting has already been held at the Morgan County Farm Bureau, Ray said, and about 60 people attended to speak against the closing. The Morgan County Board of Commissioners has also opposed the closing in writing.

The USDA announced earlier this year it will close 131 FSA offices throughout the nation as part of its plan to save $150 million.

Ray said regardless of whether the Morgan office closes, the local branch of the Natural Resources Department will remain in that location, meaning federal funds will still be expended to pay rent there. The two employees have been told they will be transferred to other offices, she added.

The state office will be taking public comments through Feb. 6. Comments can be emailed to kula.moore@ga.usda.gov or mailed to Georgia State FSA Office; Attn: Kula Moore; 355 East Hancock Ave.; Athens, GA; 30601.