By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
MALAD – Farmers and ranchers in Oneida County are demanding answers following the firing of two long-time and well-liked employees at the county’s Farm Service Agency office in Malad.
Farmers and ranchers told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation those employees were liked by every producer in the county and knew important information about producers’ operations. They said they went out of their way to ensure farmers and ranchers knew about important upcoming deadlines and met them.
Producers in the county have no idea why the employees were fired – they were removed by armed security – and are concerned that now they might not be able to get all their necessary paperwork done for important farm programs before a looming Sept. 30 deadline.
Farmers and ranchers have until Sept. 30 to complete paperwork for crop insurance, disaster payments, Conservation Reserve Program enrollment and other farm programs that can be critically important for many agricultural operations.
FSA, an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, implements federal agricultural policy and handles farm credit and loan programs and manages disaster, commodity, conservation and farm marketing programs.
Complicating matters, the Malad FSA service center was ordered closed Sept. 9 and 10.
With those two employees now gone and the clock ticking toward that Sept. 30 deadline, farmers in this county are worried they might not be able to meet it.
Plus, they are not happy about the secrecy surrounding the firing of those two FSA employees and the fact that the Malad office now has armed security following the firing.
Farmers and ranchers in this county in southeast Idaho are demanding answers to their questions but not getting any.
About 60-70 producers met in Malad Sept. 8 to discuss the issue and another several dozen met with Sen. Mark Harris, a rancher and farmer from Soda Springs, in front of the FSA office the following day.
Harris is looking into the matter and spoke with acting state FSA director Charles Newhouse about it.
Harris told IFBF the director said armed security was added at the Malad office and it was closed for the safety of employees.
“Armed guards to keep people in Malad away from their FSA office is downright insulting to the community of Malad,” Harris said. “These are solid people in that community. It’s been a bad year with the drought and they’re trying to survive.”
Harris said he was told the use of armed security and the temporary office closure were part of protocol.
“Well, protocol is stupid in this case,” Harris said.
FSA sent local media a statement attributed to Newhouse that said the Malad service center was closed “in order to ensure the safety of employees and customers….” The statement said the move was taken “because of a disturbance related to personnel decisions.”
It also said USDA will notify producers in the county as soon as the office reopens and that “the work of USDA in Oneida County continues as we deliver programs and services to our customers, in addition to payments for those that scheduled to receive them.”
An FSA spokesman also told local media in an email: “While the physical office is temporarily closed, there is not a disruption in program delivery for producers. We have made adjustments in our operations to ensure that seasoned and trained staff continue delivering programs, processing applications, and issuing payments. Producers can get the support they need online, over the phone, and at neighboring county offices.”
Harris said producers are worried that two people who have worked in the office for a long time and know and care about their operations are suddenly gone, with no explanation.
“There’s a lot of concern,” he said. “It takes a special person in those offices to keep things straight. You rely on people in those offices to do that and they do a great job. That’s what these farmers … in Malad are worried about.”
Producers are also not happy about armed security being placed in the FSA office.
Tracey Davis, a farmer and rancher from Malad, had an armed security guard standing right behind him when he went to the FSA office Sept. 8.
“It just didn’t seem right,” he said. “It wasn’t an environment that was welcoming to anybody.”
The FSA spokesman said that “the placement of security for the benefit of staff and customers was deemed prudent.”
Russ Boyer, who farms and ranches near the community of Stone in Oneida County, said the two FSA employees who were fired did an excellent job and were liked and respected by the county’s farmers and ranchers.
“There is not one farmer or rancher in this community who has ever had a (negative) interaction with either of those two employees,” he said. “They have been exemplary employees.”
Oneida County Farm Bureau President David Baker said the secrecy behind their termination and what is happening at the Malad FSA office doesn’t sit well with producers.
“Things are not quite right down here; it’s a crazy situation,” he said. “We need to get some answers.”
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 422 farms in Oneida County in 2017 and 320,000 total acres of land in farms.
The county’s farmland was split evenly between cropland and pastureland and producers brought in $36 million in farm-gate receipts during the census year.