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Missed payments: PSA shutdown delays $290M in ND checks

FARGO -- North Dakota impacts from the federal shutdown include nearly $290 million in Conservation Reserve Program and direct-payment checks that would have gone out to farmers and landowners in the first week of October -- but didn't.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he's very concerned about that and other impacts. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she couldn't immediately confirm those figures, which are based on previously published information, and projections from before the shutdown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, which handles farm operating and real estate loans, as well as farm price support programs, including direct and counter-cyclical payments, is shut down, idling about 300 people in that agency in North Dakota alone. The shutdown itself is limiting the amount of information about impacts, but examples include:

V For borrowers from the FSA, checks are made jointly to the borrower and lender for livestock and crop sales. With FSA offices shut down, there is no one to sign off on these checks for crops or livestock.

V The FSA normally would be making about $200 million in direct payments to North Dakota farmers in the first week in October, but those aren't being sent. Nationally, that figure is $4.5 billion, according to USDA information previously published.

V About $89 million in North Dakota CRP payments would have been made in the first week of October, based on earlier published data. Those figures would be $1.7 billion nationally.

V A similar issue would involve indemnities from the Risk Management Agency, although details weren't immediately known. Some crop insurance checks would require joint signatures from the insured and the FSA lender. Heitkamp said the RMA staff certainly isn't there to help deal with questions for insurance companies or the insured.

V National Agricultural Statistics Service workers are furloughed, which interrupts the flow of information for farmers who would be using data for marketing or financing and planning. The next important NASS report is expected Oct. 11, and its publication is in question.

Heitkamp said CRP payments often are "retirement income for a lot of elderly." She said the delays of other payments -- while significant -- probably are less significant than the impact of the delay in passage of the farm bill in general.

Hoeven spokesman Don Canton said Hoeven is working with Republicans and Democrats to solve the farm bill problem.

An administrative call

"Staffing is an administrative call," Canton said. "The administration makes a judgment on who gets furloughed and who doesn't."

Canton said it appears the administration doesn't think the FSA is "deemed" essential. "You could ask them," Canton said. "I think there's more discretion in some of these decisions than is being portrayed. ... Ask (them) if making sure producers get a CRP check, or a direct payment, ask them if they think that's essential."

It isn't clear how soon USDA officials could go back to work. USDA offices have a phone tree communication process in order, sources say. Employees have been told to watch the news and that supervisors would contact them.

Employees during this furlough time reportedly have been told they will be fined up to $5,000 if they are caught doing federal work surreptitiously, and are prevented from taking home government smartphones or other computers or work.

Employees would likely reappear for work at USDA if summoned, as is the case with Department of Defense employees, Heitkamp said. It is presumed that the employees may be compensated retroactively, but that isn't a given.

In South Dakota, congressional members asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to open FSA offices to help farmers tally losses from an Oct. 4 storm, as well as open the Livestock Indemnity Program. Farmers have been told to keep track of animal deaths in the wake of an unprecedented snow storm. The LIP program hasn't operated since Sept. 30, 2011, however, because Congress hasn't passed it, extended it or funded it.

In any case, there are no FSA officials working to accept reports of cattle killed in the storm Heitkamp said. "Until Congress passes a farm bill, ranchers will not be eligible for the compensation they deserve," she said.

Heitkamp's staff is running at about 20 percent strength and isn't allowed to deal with mail during the shutdown. "I'm convinced that in our mail queue there's a ton of discouraged mail," she said. She said she has been meeting with constituents and farm groups with ongoing "serious concerns about the lack of a farm bill."

Hoeven said he spoke with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and was still hopeful that conferees on the farm bill could be named this week.