FSA Oneida protest

A large group of farmers and ranchers and their supporters demonstrate Thursday morning outside of the Oneida County USDA Farm Service Agency office.

MALAD — More than 100 Oneida County farmers and ranchers demonstrated outside of their local USDA Farm Service Agency office on Sept. 9, unhappy about a recent staffing upheaval they say could cause them to miss looming application deadlines for critical agricultural programs.

The food producers say they’re also offended by the recent addition of armed guards at the office, where they’re accustomed to visiting with friends. The FSA office, located in Malad at 137 North 100 West, was closed Thursday and Friday, after agency officials learned of the planned demonstration.

In the midst of one of the worst droughts the county has faced in recent memory, the food producers say they urgently need to have their applications processed for emergency drought payments, special grazing exemptions and other relief programs. It’s an especially busy time of year at the office with the federal fiscal year ending on Sept. 30.

With so much at stake for their operations, the farmers and ranchers say the two FSA employees who best understand the programs they use and are most familiar with their individual operations were recently escorted from the FSA office for undisclosed personnel reasons.

Thomas Maddox — who raises organic feed, beef, pork, chicken and lamb — said in the wake of the personnel turmoil, the FSA staff has been poorly equipped to help him apply for assistance.

And while he was recently at the office seeking answers to urgent questions, he was asked to stand in a lobby behind Plexiglas, where an armed guard hovered nearby with his hand resting on the holster of his gun.

Maddox said he asked the current supervisor of the office, “Really you feel unsafe in little old Malad?”

Maddox believes closing the office has only made the situation more pressing as the clock continues to tick on applying for programs.

“I planted 250 acres of triticale this spring. Because of the lack of moisture it all burned up. I wasn’t able to get a single bale of hay,” Maddox said. “To pay back the fuel and seed cost, I need to get a drought relief payment on that. That has got be done by Sept. 30, and I can guarantee that’s not going to happen.”

Maddox is also concerned about the approaching deadline to file for emergency grazing of ground enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to plant acres in seed mixtures for the benefit of wildlife and erosion control while taking no crop.

FSA officials say the armed security and the office closure were both done in the interest of keeping staff safe.

“In order to ensure the safety of employees and customers, USDA has temporarily closed the Oneida County service center in Idaho because of a disturbance related to personnel decisions,” Charles Newhouse, acting state executive director for the FSA, said in a prepared statement issued through the agency’s Washington, D.C., office.

In his statement, Newhouse offered no specific details about the nature of the disturbance he referenced.

Regarding the choice to bring in armed guards, Newhouse said, “We must ensure the safety of employees and customers. The placement of security for the benefit of staff and customers was deemed prudent.”

Oneida County Sheriff Arnie Jones attended the demonstration at the request of the farmers and ranchers and found it to be orderly. He’s also seen no evidence of a public safety threat pertaining to the FSA office.

“There’s nothing criminal and I am not aware of any threat,” Jones said. “It’s an overreaction (by FSA administrators) in my opinion.”

Jones believes the farmers and ranchers have legitimate concerns but have managed to remain extremely cordial in pursuing answers to their questions.

“You’re talking millions of dollars and you’re talking livelihoods, farms and businesses,” Jones said. “A lot of these guys rely on these programs to survive.”

Jared Simpson, a farmer and rancher whose irrigation supply was exhausted in mid season, said his corn silage and hay yields have been reduced by half.

“Everybody in this county is applying for disaster relief,” Simpson said. “We’re in as severe a drought as we’ve ever been in in Oneida County.”

Simpson emphasized that the FSA is tasked with serving producers but is dodging their questions, nonetheless. Simpson would like an outside organization to be tasked with auditing the local FSA office.

Jeff Semrad, a former Oneida County sheriff who raises dry-land hay and cattle, added, “When we go in (to the office) they don’t know what they’re doing. They write your name and email and phone number down and say, ‘I’ll have to look at that.’”

In his written statement, Newhouse vowed there will be no disruption in program delivery to producers.

“We have made adjustments in our operations to ensure that seasoned and trained staff continue delivering programs, processing applications and issuing payments,” Newhouse said in the emailed remarks.

Newhouse reminded producers they can find support online or at neighboring county offices. Newhouse explained that FSA has gained experience in implementing programs remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is leveraging that experience now to aid producers in applying for programs and relief.

State Sen. Mark Harris, a Republican who works as a farmer and rancher in Soda Springs, attended the demonstration and assured the producers he’s been in communication about the issue with Gov. Brad Little and members of Idaho’s congressional delegation.

Harris has spoken with Newhouse but said he’s received little clarity about the situation.

Harris is also concerned that a local rancher who was elected by his peers to serve on an advisory committee to help guide the Oneida County FSA office was reportedly stripped of his position by FSA administration merely for asking questions about the situation. Harris disagrees that FSA officials have the authority to pull a producer from an elected position.

As for the armed security, Harris believes it’s a slight to producers, and the wound may take a while to heal.

“I find it offensive to the community that there were armed guards in there. It’s just plain offensive to me (that) those actions would be taken,” Harris said. “... It’s throwing gas on a fire. It erodes any trust there was there.”

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