Retired Idaho FSA director sees new roles for agency
By JOHN O'CONNELL
BOISE, Idaho -- Recently retired Idaho Farm Service Agency Executive Director Dick Rush sees short-term relief on the horizon for his former staff members, who have been asked to do more with less, but he anticipates they'll assume new duties in the long term.
In the past four years, federal cuts have reduced Idaho FSA staffing by 39 workers. In eight years as FSA executive director under President Clinton and roughly four years in the post under President Obama, Rush has closed 10 of Idaho's FSA offices, leaving 29 operational.
Looking forward, Rush, 68, who retired at the start of this month, believes cuts in the Farm Bill now under debate -- such as shifting direct payments to risk-management programs that pay farmers only when they need help -- should lighten workloads for FSA staff.
Furthermore, new federal FSA software, called MIDAS, should reduce staff time in processing farmers' paperwork.
The new system allows farmers to enter much of their own information for applications. Growers who are uncomfortable with computers may still seek help from FSA offices, but Rush expects younger growers will adapt quickly. MIDAS has been online in Idaho for about a month, and Rush said he waited to retire until it was fully launched.
In the long term, as new federal initiatives come along, such as immigration reform, Rush said it will make sense to task FSA offices with some of the administrative burden.
"The FSA and Natural Resources Conservation Service offices are about the only federal presence we have now in rural areas," Rush said.
Rush considers the employee-friendly means in which Idaho implemented its cuts to be a major accomplishment of his tenure. He said farmers, who were initially concerned about losing good staff members, have voiced few complaints.
"Almost all employees who left us did so voluntarily," Rush said, noting they took early retirement offers.
He's also been pleased by FSA's growing emphasis on gaurunteed loans to growers, where FSA guarantees up to 90 percent of a bank's risk in taking a loan to help growers obtain credit.
"More and more, that's how people are getting credit in agriculture, particularly beginning farmers," Rush said, describing it as low-cost program with little delinquency.
Ron Abbott, farm programs chief with FSA, believes Rush took full advantage of the agency's outreach specialist, making certain to emphasize access for underserved and socially disadvantaged groups.
Idaho Falls farmer Matt Gellings, a member of the FSA state committee, credits Rush for starting the Leadership Idaho Agriculture program, which provides leadership training to the agricultural community.
"It really helped me out in my career, networking and public speaking," Gellings said of the program.
Rush, also a former director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, administrator of the Idaho Wheat Commission and vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, expects he'll return to agriculture in a reduced capacity, likely as a volunteer.
Aaron Johnson is now acting FSA executive director and hasn't applied for the permanent position. Rush expects it will take a couple of months for the White House to appoint a replacement, and he's pleased by the quality of the many applicants.