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Montana Ag Network: Combating FSA employee shortages in the Farm Bill

Cattle ranchers feeling the effects of winter drought
Posted at 2:51 PM, Sep 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-24 16:51:03-04

WASHINGTON D.C. — The beauty of rural Montana is you support your neighbor. It’s hard to support a neighbor when you feel invaluable. That’s where the Montana State FSA Office is fighting the retention of employees.

“Those people are great people, I'm telling you, I work with them every year and they are incredibly good people, incredibly talented people,” shared Senator Jon Tester.

Maureen Wicks is the Executive Director for Montana State FSA, and she values her local county employees but is caught at a crossroads.

“Everywhere you go, there are signs help wanted, help wanted, help, wanted and we are no different.”

The Farm Service Agency is the hub of the farming community, it offers a multitude of programs and it’s a community gathering space for farmers in need of aid.

The Farm Service Agency is a sector of the USDA. The USDA implements all programs throughout the Farm Bill. With a growing piece of legislation, inflation, and disasters beyond the turn of each season, the job of a county FSA agent, has become much more demanding.

“What we're finding is to staff our offices, when you look at how things have changed and the responsibilities of individuals in our county offices. It's a different job than it was 15 years ago,” explained Wicks.

Wicks is a former county FSA Employee and was born and raised in Havre, she is familiar with the county employee’s job.

The Farm Service Agency is finding that childcare remains a top reason FSA cannot keep employees.

“Childcare is big and the expense of childcare and how that impacts, especially in our rural communities, we're very used to having people that are part of the community, their families are part of the community, and childcare can be an issue.”

Ultimately, the program comes down to one thing both Montana Senators can agree on.

“You got to pay them. If you're going to recruit them, they have to know that the pay is there. Government jobs are pretty good jobs. They really are. But, if the pay doesn't match up, there are pretty good jobs in the private sector you can get,” said Senator Jon Tester.

Senator Steve Daines shared, “In this economy, you've got to keep wages competitive to attract and retain the right people here to serve these important organizations like Farm Services.”

“I really think it's about money. I think the Farm Bill can dictate the pay, yes.” Tested added.

The Farm Service Agency has heard the concern from agriculture producers from across the state. The Agency cannot comment on the need for more funding, but it recognizes the problem and it’s up to the leaders to make the necessary changes.