Farmers needing government loans confront empty offices and unanswered calls as the partial government shutdown drags into the fourth week. State officials are also concerned that the shutdown will result in a delay in developing a program designed to help struggling dairy farmers.
Call the Farm Service Agency's Vermont office, and you’ll hear a message with a unique kind of circular logic:
“We are not in the office at this time. We are on furlough due to the lapse in federal government funding. Please leave a voicemail,” the recording says. “Please note that we do not have access to voicemail due to the current lapse in funding.”
Wendy Wilton, Vermont’s Farm Service Agency executive director, said she’s not authorized to comment on the record about how or if the shutdown was affecting farmers. Wilton directed VPR's inquiry to the USDA media office in Washington. No one there picked up the phone, although the USDA website does list which services are still available.
Diane Bothfeld at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture did answer her phone. She’s waiting to learn about new rules that the federal agency is writing for a dairy insurance program authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. The insurance program is seen as a needed lifeline for farmers facing the fourth year of low milk prices.
“But the government is shut down and the workers at USDA Farm Service Agency, where this program is housed, aren’t currently working,” Bothfeld said. “So we know that the delay will occur. How much time, how much of a delay, I guess will depend on how long that the federal government is shut down.”
The sign-up deadline for the new insurance program was expected sometime this spring. Bothfeld said the new rules and new software needed to calculate the payments were supposed to be written in the March to April timeframe.
"It's just a concern that it may be delayed, out now instead of March-April maybe April-May," she said. "So that's a concern for our dairy farmers in Vermont."
Count Derby dairy farmer Andy Birch among the concerned. He’s waiting to sign up for payments that he’s eligible for under last year’s insurance program.
“I’m especially anxious to get that paperwork going because I had some unique circumstances last year that prevented me from participating in part of that program,” Birch said. “And the new farm bill was going to make a tweak to allow me to retroactively sign up for it.”
Birch isn’t expecting a ton of money under that program to help his 50-cow operation — about $3,000 — but it will help, he said. And there are other services Birch is not getting from USDA due to the shutdown.
“We aren’t getting the market reports either right now, and I don’t think we’re getting inventory reports. As far as our milk price forecasts, we’re kind of sailing in the dark,” he said.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said the shutdown will hurt farmers across the country in the long run, especially as they try to learn about new assistance programs in the farm bill.
“If you’re a dairy farmer, there are changes in there that can benefit you but you have to know what they are, and there’s nobody to answer the phone,” Leahy said. “If you are a farmer in the Midwest and you have to plan how you’re going to plant your crops and what you’re going to plant and what the allotments are going to be, there’s nobody you can ask.”
Farmers in Vermont also work with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. The agency helps farmers pay for manure management systems or other projects to improve soil and protect water.
Vicki Drew, the NRCS state conservationist for Vermont, said the NRCS is open for business for now because it has carryover funds from prior budgets and new money in the just approved farm bill.