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Idaho Falls farmer to head state FSA office

By John O'Connell

Intermountain Farm and Ranch

IDAHO FALLS — Matt Gellings broke both of his legs and couldn’t walk for six months after he crashed his snowmobile into a snow-covered stump in January of 2016.

Six years later, the fourth-generation Idaho Falls farmer can look back on his debilitating accident as an experience that closed one door — ending his long career as a food producer — but helped to open another opportunity.

On Jan. 21, Gellings, 64, and his wife, Kathy, made the move from Eastern Idaho to Boise, where the Biden administration has appointed him to serve as the new state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency.

Ever since the accident, Gellings has rented his Idaho Falls farmland to a neighbor, Derek Reed. He’s now free to put his experience to work and contribute to Idaho agriculture from an office setting.

Gellings never lost his affinity for farming. By the fall of 2017, he met a personal goal of helping Reed with potato and grain harvest, regaining strength in his legs through a unique physical therapy regimen — reps of climbing up and down the ladder of his tractor.

However, Gellings was glad to leave behind the stress of living with constant risk and having to eke out a profit margin in the face of rising input costs and stagnant commodity prices.

He admits he could have jumped back into crop production after just a year’s hiatus, but he ultimately decided walking away was a safe bet.

“It was so nice not to owe the bank any money,” Gellings said. “We were getting some good cash rent and there was no risk. I’d never had that before.”

Gellings knows through first-hand experience about the importance of the security afforded to food producers through FSA programs. In 2021 alone, FSA loaned $800 million to Idaho farmers and ranchers.

“The government payments definitely helped a lot of people continue their farming and ranching,” Gellings said.

Gellings has a long history of involvement in agricultural leadership, both at the state and national levels.

“If we don’t tell our story, somebody is going to tell it for us,” Gellings said. “Rather than sit and gripe about something in the coffee shop, why don’t you get involved and see if you can make a difference?”

The Idaho Wheat Commission sponsored Gellings to participate in Leadership Idaho Agriculture in 2000 and he explained “from that point doors started opening.”

Gellings, who had a small cattle herd for 26 years, took his first industry leadership position with the Bonneville County Cattle Association, where he served as president in 2001.

He later joined the executive board of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, where he served as president.

He still serves on the Idaho Ag in the Classroom board of directors.

In 2008, Gellings was appointed to the FSA State Committee, where he served for 12 years. That experience was critical in helping Gellings earn the state executive director’s job.

Gellings started the process of applying to head the state FSA office in November 2020.

“I got pushed by our state organizations to throw my name in,” Gellings said.

A top priority for Gellings moving ahead will be to reestablish the defunct State FSA Committee. Prior to Gellings taking the job, the acting FSA director, Charles Newhouse, had been single-handedly filling the committee’s duties.

Gellings plans to name five farmers, ranchers and dairymen from throughout the state to the committee, which provides grassroots-level participation in decisions on disaster assistance, hiring and outreach, in addition to handling appeals.

During his initial 100 days in office, Gellings will also aim to restore full staffing to the FSA state service center and to the 29 local service centers, which serve 44 counties.

He also plans to personally visit every local service center.

Juliet Marshall, University of Idaho’s department head over plant sciences, appreciates that Gellings is conscientious about weighing the pros and cons before making decisions.

“Having known Matt for so many years, he is such a fair and balanced person when it comes to dealing with issues,” Marshall said. “I think there’s probably no one better qualified due to his long-term experience in FSA, as well as his long-term knowledge of farming in Idaho.”

Living in Boise will allow Gellings to be near his son Jonathan and three grandchildren. He also has a daughter, Jasmin, who lives in Idaho Falls, and Kathy’s son, Blaine, also lives in Idaho Falls.

They plan to keep their farm house in Idaho Falls and to travel often back to East Idaho.