By Charles Abbott
HONOLULU (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department plans to close 249 offices this year -- half of them the local offices that deal with farmers -- in a cost-cutting program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Monday.
USDA says the package will save $150 million a year and help reduce the yawning federal deficit. Vilsack announced the closures in a speech to the annual meeting of the 6 million-member American Farm Bureau Federation here.
Some 7,000 USDA employees have accepted early retirement in the past 15 months "and that number is sure to grow as this year progresses," said Vilsack. USDA has roughly 100,000 employees.
Past proposals to close local USDA offices ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. Congress has blocked closures unless USDA provides adequate notice and proof that a local office is not needed. USDA has at least one office in each rural county and thousands of offices overall.
"Even with these changes, USDA will still have a strong presence in virtually all counties in the country as well as around the world," said Vilsack.
The Farm Service Agency offices, which help run crop subsidy and conservation programs, targeted for closure are lightly staffed, with only one or two employees, and are within 20 miles of another FSA office. USDA said 35 currently have no full-time employees.
USDA is developing technology that will allow producers to use the Internet to handle USDA programs.
"Over the long haul, we believe farmers and ranchers across the country will be better served by the choice we made," said Vilsack.
Closures will begin in late winter with a goal of completing the process by July. Texas would lose the largest number of offices, 15, followed by Arkansas, 10, and Tennessee, nine.
Six other agencies will close 118 offices by the end of September. They are the Foreign Agricultural Service, Food and Nutrition Service, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Rural Development, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In addition, 12 Agricultural Research Service laboratories will close this year. Congress has approved those closings.
Vilsack said the closures were part of a broad-ranging effort at USDA to streamline operations and save money. They include consolidating 700 cell phone plans into 10 accounts to get a better deal. More steps will be announced, he said.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and Carol Bishopric)