By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A proposed change in the election procedure for the county committees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency would give the U.S. secretary of Agriculture some input on the makeup of the committees.
The change is intended to ensure that "socially disadvantaged" farmers and ranchers are represented, according to a notice in the Federal Register. Those include ag producers who are women or members of minority groups.
"The secretary is going to retain the right to place additional candidates on the ballot from socially disadvantaged groups," said Mike Zook, FSA executive director in Hill County.
The notice published by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Aug. 17 said that if no one is nominated by producers in an area to fill a vacancy on a county committee, the secretary can nominate two people from the area. If the secretary doesn't make any nominations, the state FSA committee will nominate two candidates. If neither the secretary nor the state committee nominate candidates, the county committee must nominate two candidates, under the proposed rule change.
The secretary may nominate a candidate even if other candidates are nominated, the notice said.
The notice also proposes reducing the number of consecutive terms a producer can hold on a committee from three terms to two, and would require that all ballots cast in the election are mailed to the state office. They would then be sent back to the county offices, where the votes will be counted.
Comments on the proposal must be received by Sept. 16.
The county committees are composed of producers who are participants in FSA programs and are elected by area producers who are served by FSA programs. The committees help administer and set local guidelines for FSA programs, including commodity price support loans and payments, conservation programs, and disaster payments.
Former Hill County FSA committee member Karen McIntosh said she doesn't like the idea of the secretary nominating people to the committee.
"I think it should be up to producers to nominate producers who could do the best job for them," said McIntosh, who farms north of Havre and was a committee member from 1990 to 1996.
Ed Loyd, a USDA spokesman, said Veneman wants to make sure that all producers have the same opportunity to participate.
"The intent here is to make sure all of America's farmers and ranchers are served," he said.
Dick Deschamps, FSA's chief administrative officer in Montana, said he doesn't think Veneman had Montana in mind when she proposed the changes.
Deschamps said Montana FSA has worked to make sure that groups classified as disadvantaged by USDA are represented on the county committees. If a county FSA office, with the help of the state office, determines that a disadvantaged group is not adequately represented, the state FSA committee appoints a nonvoting adviser to the county committee, he said.
"I can only guess the secretary thought this is not happening in all parts of the country," Deschamps said.
Most committees, which have three to five members, make decisions by consensus. The nonvoting advisers are as much a part of that process as the voting members, he said.
Deschamps said county committees might have the perception they are losing some control to Washington, D.C., if the new rule is adopted.
"Our local committees take their jobs very seriously. Any time you take away local authority there is concern," he said.
McIntosh said she thinks the county committees already represent the interests of all producers, including those considered disadvantaged.
"I don't feel the people who are elected do anything to harm their interests," she said. "I think if they want to be on the board they have the opportunity to be there."
Each FSA county committee is composed of elected representatives from areas of the county called local administrative areas. The number of local administrative areas in the county determines the size of the committee.
The new rule proposes that an annual review of the area boundaries should include making sure that all groups are fairly represented.
Comments on the proposed rule can be e-mailed to: email@example.com, or delivered to: County Committee Election Reform Comments, Department of Agriculture, Room 3092-S, Mail Stop 0539, 1400 Independence Ave. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-0539.
On the Net: FSA: www.fsa.usda.gov