USDA recalls workers to help with farm loans, taxes; data uncertain

by Reuters
Wednesday, 16 January 2019 22:15 GMT

(Updates with comments from Farm Credit Council, USDA chief economist)

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture will reopen about 980 Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices for three days starting on Thursday to help process farm loans and tax documents during the partial federal government shutdown.

About 2,500 FSA employees who have been furloughed by the partial shutdown that began on Dec. 22 have been called back to work without pay, the department said in a statement on Wednesday. It said the offices would be open Thursday, Friday and Tuesday before closing again.

"Until Congress sends President Trump an appropriations bill in the form that he will sign, we are doing our best to minimize the impact of the partial federal funding lapse on America's agricultural producers," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "We are bringing back part of our FSA team to help producers with existing farm loans."

Perdue said 983 of the agency's 2,124 offices would be open. At least one office will be open in each state, as well as in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

"That is going to provide a little bit of relief," said Todd Van Hoose, president and chief executive of the Farm Credit Council, which represents farm credit institutions across the nation lending to half a million customers.

"This is the heavy renewal season for agricultural lending. We think it is very important that we get those FSA offices open permanently so we can get new business done," he said in a briefing in Washington.

About one-quarter of the federal government shut down on Dec. 22 over President Donald Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which congressional Democrats oppose.

The shutdown, now in its 26th day, has rippled across the already struggling U.S. farm economy. The USDA canceled the release of a slew of key reports last week.

In addition to the lack of clarity about supply and demand for their goods, farmers have been unable to receive aid payments from the Trump administration's $12 billion plan to ease the pain caused by the trade war.

'TIME CRUNCH'

The shutdown also threatens to hobble the compilation of key data and reports ahead of the USDA's hotly anticipated annual outlook conference in February.

At its Agricultural Outlook Forum, planned for Feb. 21 and 22 in Arlington, Virginia, the USDA releases preliminary forecasts for the U.S. crop, livestock and dairy sectors, including updated acreage projections for the new year and farm-gate price forecasts.

The forum is still on track to be held next month, USDA chief economist Robert Johansson told Reuters by phone, but time is running short.

"If the shutdown continues into February, we will start having to make some contingencies. ... Right now, we have time. We have not changed anything yet," Johansson said.

The USDA typically releases its first farm income forecast of the year before the Outlook Forum, and this year's event will also feature the release of the latest Census of Agriculture, a detailed count of U.S. farms and ranches taken every five years.

"It will be a time crunch, the longer we wait here," Johansson said. (Reporting by Susan Heavey, Tim Ahmann and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Julie Ingwersen and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)

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