Unsung Hero Helps Community Survive Devastating Disaster

Meade County SD staff - Jim Neill Unsung HeroPictured from left to right:  Jim Neill (CED), Dixie Oedekoven (PT), Julie Bronemann (PT), Mary Kay Lemmel (PT), Holly Howie (PT), Tacy Snyder (FLO), Lois Kirkegaard (PT), Ron Adam (FLM)

Sturgis, S.D. — According to Jim Neill, Meade County Farm Service Agency (FSA) Executive Director, everyone in the county office had “dreams about livestock applications” following Winter Storm Atlas. The sudden 2013 blizzard dropped up to three feet of snow in parts of South Dakota.

It caught ranchers off guard. Their cattle roamed prairieland, rummaging sparse forage for food after the harsh drought of 2012. The storm trapped the livestock in the cold, covered their food and caused 20,000 head to succumb in Meade County alone. Throughout South Dakota, 45,000 head of cattle died. It was a shocking disaster.

Jim Neill is one who stepped up. His entire team in the Meade County FSA office did.

“The staff did a great job,” Neill said. He explained that his program technicians are friends and neighbors to the hundreds of ranchers who suffered catastrophic losses. They worked tirelessly to help their county producers, he said.

Neill also credits his county committee for their compassionate work. They met 8-10 hours each week following the disaster to go through dozens of applications streaming into his office.

But temporary program technician Holly Howie saw in Neill an unsung hero as he led the effort. “He is a very hard worker, very involved with the community,” Howie said. “Jim works above and beyond doing what it takes to help the producers.”

Howie said she felt like Jim Neill would be “a great candidate” for the government’s Unsung Hero competition. She nominated her boss and he was selected.

Howie and Neill share a passion. They love family. Howie, 30, is the mother of three youngsters. She and her husband had only recently moved the family to the Sturgis area from another part of the state where she had been a full-time FSA program technician. Neill is the father of five – two boys and three girls. They had moved to Sturgis in 2010.

“FSA is a great place to work,” Howie said. “Very family friendly.”

It’s hard to imagine that Neill has much time to spend with his five children. One weekend a month he devotes to his National Guard duties.  Two weeks a year he spends training with his guard unit, a natural activity for the former military leader. But he does find time for his kids, helping them with baseball and softball.

There was pride in his voice. A good dad, you can tell.

A good FSA employee, too. He said he was humbled by a phone call he received from FSA Deputy Administrator for Field Operations Greg Diephouse, who offered his congratulations for Neill’s selection.

Neill said accepting praise is not one of his stronger suits. Still, he said, “It was nice to have someone say thanks. It was a nice honor.”

Praise came from FSA Administrator Val Dolcini, too: “Jim represents the kind of ‘can do’ spirit that exemplifies the employees of FSA. I’m proud to call him my colleague.”

So, why all the fuss over Jim Neill and the Meade County staff? Because 500 producers in Meade County, South Dakota, suffered devastating losses eye-witnessed by USDA Under Secretary Michael Scuse. The disaster happened at a time when government programs were shut down as a result of an expired farm bill.

Jim Neill and his staff supported efforts to raise funds within the community. They found temporary solutions until the 2014 Farm Bill came up with relief. That was more than a year after the losses.  Since then, $32 million in disaster relief payments have reached the producers in South Dakota, in good part thanks to the work of Neill and his staff.

Individuals with unsung natural leadership capabilities, capabilities exemplified by Jim Neill, are the ones who generate heroic results. Something we see often at FSA.

So, in honor of all of FSA’s unsung heroes, we say congratulations to Jim Neill. For more information on USDA’s 12 Unsung Heroes, visit http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/05/06/usda-celebrates-the-public-service-of-12-unsung-heroes/.

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Wickard Honored for Contribution to Indiana Ag

BeyondtheFence - Julia WickardIndiana FSA State Executive Director Julia Wickard is honored with three others for their contribution to Indiana agriculture.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Indiana State Executive Director Julia Wickard shared the limelight recently with three Indiana farm stalwarts who were recognized for their service, commitment and dedication to Indiana agriculture. The four honorees stand out for their support and promotion of the state’s agriculture industry, according to the sponsoring host.

Wickard and her honored colleagues – farm broadcaster Gary Truitt of Zionsville; farmer and philanthropist Stephen Head of Rockport; and agronomist and Purdue University college professor Dr. Bob Nielsen – were recognized in March at Beck’s Beyond the Fence awards ceremony during the Indiana Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum in Indianapolis.

The annual ceremony is sponsored by Beck’s Hybrids in conjunction with the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Growers Association.

Beck’s Hybrids is a family-owned and operated seed company serving farmers in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky.  The company lays claim to being the largest retail, family-owned seed company in the United States.

Julia Wickard is one of 50 state executive directors appointed by the President of the United States to direct the delivery of farm programs, including disaster assistance, price support and conservation, as well as farm loans. Wickard was appointed in 2009.


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The Big Picture

APFO Team volunteering with food drive

APFO employees repackage USDA commodity shipments that will be sent to community distribution centers across 29 counties in Utah.

Farmers and ranchers know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with its network of more than 2,100 field offices in nearly every county across the nation, provides a unique, in-person service by keeping its ears to the ground in rural America.

What’s less known is that USDA also keeps its eyes in the sky, too.

With its Aerial Photography Field Office, USDA has one of the largest collections of historical aerial photos in the nation, responsible not only for the agriculture imagery that supports USDA Farm Service Agency programs, but also providing a historical record for studying rural land use changes, demographic change, habitat assessment and even urban development.

From this viewpoint of agriculture, the USDA aerial photography staff can see the big picture.

Recently, these employees took the big picture one step further after a guest speaker from the Utah Food Bank, a recipient of Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) donations, shared how CFC donations help hungry families in Utah.  The Utah Food Bank, as a partner in the “No Kid Hungry Campaign,” works to provides food to children who may not receive three square meals a day outside of school.

After learning that USDA contributes farm commodities to the Utah Food Bank, the USDA aerial photography staff decided to volunteer their time on April 2 by stepping into the Utah Food Bank warehouse where USDA commodity shipments are stored waiting for distribution to the end user.

“With rows of boxes stacked to the roof, it was easy to see the USDA logo hundreds of times,” said Denny Skiles, branch chief of aerial photography. “Boxes were broken open and repackaged with an assortment of veggies, meat, dairy and pasta products to create well-rounded meals to community distribution centers.”

According to the No Kid Hungry Campaign, around 22 percent of children in Utah struggle with hunger. Of the 177,000 low-income children in Utah that receive free or reduced-price school lunches, only 11 percent receive summer meals. That’s why during 2014, the No Kid Hungry Campaign distributed more than 5 million pounds of USDA commodities, or more than 186,000 cases of food to all 29 counties in Utah.

Such an effort requires hundreds of volunteers.  “Volunteering at our local food bank really educated the team on the day-to-day struggles so many Americans have with hunger,” said John Mootz, aerial photography staff supervisor. “It really helped reiterate the importance of USDA’s mission of supporting and protecting our agriculture supply system.”

APFO Team posed

Farm Service Agency employees in the Aerial Photography Field Office (APFO) Operations Branch volunteered their time at the Utah Food Bank where USDA commodity shipments are stored for distribution. 

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South Dakota Pheasants Forever Recognized USDA Employee as Conservationist of the Year

Natalie Sattler, PF Conservationist of the Year 2015By:  Cassie Bable, Public Affairs Specialist – USDA Farm Service Agency

Meet Natalie Sattler, FSA Program Technician, Brown County, South Dakota

For three decades, landowners across the U.S. have committed to being good stewards of the land by protecting natural resources through participation in USDA conservation programs. While successful implementation of conservation programs relies heavily on landowners and producers, it also takes hard work and dedication from USDA employees.

Many conservation programs operate on a continuous basis, which requires employees to maintain the program year-round.

An FSA employee’s hard work and commitment to conservation initiatives and to the producers of Brown County, South Dakota has not gone unnoticed.

The Northern South Dakota Pheasants Forever Chapter 77 selected Natalie Sattler, Brown County FSA Program Technician, as the recipient of its prestigious “Conservationist of the Year” award.

Each year, the Board of Directors for the chapter nominates producers, landowners and other individuals who contributed significantly to improving wildlife habitat and who implement sound conservation practices in Brown County.

“Natalie has worked with every landowner who has ground enrolled in conservation programs in Brown County,” said Emmett Lenihan, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist. “That is her job, but she goes the extra mile to ensure that the producers are taken care of during peak sign-up periods, which usually includes putting in long hours at the office.”

FSA administers the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a voluntary program that protects environmentally sensitive land. In return for not farming the land, landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance for planting long-term, resource-conserving cover crops that reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and develop wildlife habitat. CRP and the farmers who participate in the program have protected our nation’s natural resources since The Food Security Act was signed in 1985.

Sattler has assisted producers and landowners in Brown County with CRP enrollment for 15 years. Her knowledge and experience is invaluable to landowners who are new to the program or who are looking to expand their conservation practices.

“The conservation program in Brown County is successful because of dedicated employees like Natalie,” said Craig Schaunaman, South Dakota FSA Executive Director. “Brown County is considered one of the premier hunting spots in the state and leads South Dakota in the number of active contracts and enrolled acres – having more than 1,300 Conservation Reserve Program contracts on more than 65,000 acres.”

In order to promote federal conservation programs among members of groups with similar interests, FSA partners with organizations like Pheasants Forever. Pheasants Forever is a nonprofit conservation group that focuses on protecting natural resources to improve habitats for pheasants, quail and other wildlife. Members of the organization include farmers, ranchers, landowners, conservation enthusiasts, wildlife officials and hunters.

Sattler will be honored by Pheasants Forever and recognized by her community at the 2015 Northern South Dakota Chapter 77 spring banquet in Aberdeen on Tuesday, May 5.

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FSA Employee in Arkansas “Irons Out” Wrinkles in Major Farm Program… Literally

Clay County Arkansas FSA Employee Rhonda Turner is shown here ironing ARC/PLC paperwork

Clay County Arkansas FSA Employee Rhonda Turner is shown here ironing ARC/PLC paperwork

Clay County Employees Go the Extra Mile to Ensure Successful Farm Program Delivery

USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) employees and agricultural producers alike passed a milestone recently: the deadline for selecting the new Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) or Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs authorized by the Agriculture Act of 2014, better known as the 2014 Farm Bill.

FSA employees nationwide made a personal commitment to ensure that their customers were fully informed and that the application process ran as smoothly as possible.

As part of the education and outreach campaign launched by FSA in September, more than 5 million educational postcards, in English and Spanish, have been sent to producers nationwide, and more than 6,000 events with more than 440,000 attendees, including training sessions and speaking engagements, have been conducted to educate producers on making the best, long-term decision on how ARC or PLC coverage will benefit their respective agriculture operations – decisions that impact their business for the life of the Farm Bill.

However, anyone involved in the agriculture industry knows that it’s impossible to plan for everything, especially when Mother Nature gets involved.

Perseverance is a word synonymous with farming and persevere is exactly what FSA staff did when Mother Nature interfered with the ARC/PLC enrollment in Arkansas’ Clay County.

A Saturday in March was the test. Mary Small, program technician in Piggott, Ark., went to the office to get things organized and ready for the upcoming week. She was greeted as she entered the office with water covering the floor. Melting snow on the roof had caused a substantial leak above a desk where ARC/PLC paperwork was filed. She found the papers floating in water.

Clay County is located in the Arkansas Delta and according to FSA staff, the ARC/PLC workload was heavy and they could not afford even a short duration of “downtime.” Adapt and overcome was their only option.

So, Small, along with Marty Conley, county executive director, worked to clean up the mess and attempted to salvage ARC/PLC forms, applications and 25 pages of signed documents for six farmers.

The papers were laid out to dry and on Sunday, Rhonda Turner came to the office, picked up the wrinkled documents, and began to iron them. Her goal was to salvage the documents so they could again be placed in the files, saving the producers from a second trip to the office to re-submit and resign their documents.

“I’m a seamstress and I knew you could iron paper patterns, so I figured I could iron these papers too,” said Turner. “The damaged documents had original signatures and the short time it took me to iron them saved our producers from having to make another trip to our office.”

When word of Clay County FSA’s exceptional customer service efforts reached the National Office, FSA Administrator Val Dolcini was pleased, but not surprised.

“As I’ve traveled to various states, I’ve heard many stories of how staff has continuously gone the extra mile to make sure farmers and ranchers in their local areas are aware of the new farm bill programs and sign-up deadlines and I greatly appreciate everyone’s hard work, long hours and dedication to our customers, the industry and our Agency,” said Dolcini.

According to Dolcini, ironing paperwork in Arkansas is just another example of hardworking FSA staff members doing what it takes to get the job done to serve our nation’s farmers and ranchers

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Record Harvests Bring Out the Best in FSA’s Grain Storage Oversight

Temporary grain storage overseen by FSA Commodity Operations.

While providing grain farmers with loans and safety-net programs is an important function at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency’s role in protecting the nation’s food supply does not stop when farmers deliver their harvest to the market.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) also works with grain elevators to help ensure the proper storage of harvested crops, which – during record harvests as seen in recent years – can save millions of bushels of grain from spoiling.

Corn harvested in 2014 reached a record high of 14.21 billion bushels and soybeans a record 3.96 billion bushels, which made grain storage an important issue across the Great Plains and Corn Belt regions this winter.

As harvest was wrapping up, staff at FSA worked with grain operators in 25 states to establish emergency storage options, a similar number of states compared to 2013 when 13.9 billion bushels of corn and 3.36 billion bushels of soybeans were produced. Ground storage requests from the operators for the 2014 crop totaled 390 million bushels, a record high.

“Emergency-storage approvals allow grain storage operators to properly store corn, wheat and grain sorghum on the ground until warehouse space is made available,” said Commodity Operations Acting Deputy Administrator Sandra Wood. “By working with grain operators, we are helping to ensure as much harvested grain as possible becomes the food, fuel and animal feed that helps drive our nation’s economy and does not go to waste.”

Emergency storage, typically ground piles, helps to provide additional space after harvest when all conventional storage space is filled to capacity. The use of ground piles for grain has been an industry practice during peak harvest seasons for many years.

Warehouse operators have the same responsibilities and liabilities for the quantity and quality of grain stored in emergency storage space as they do for grain stored conventionally.

Wheat, corn and grain sorghum may be stored in ground piles, but not soybeans. Also, grain cannot be stored in emergency ground piles past March 31 as the warm, wet weather puts the grain at more risk for spoilage.

FSA’s involvement with grain storage in temporary locations helps establish quality and safety standards to help ensure the safekeeping and integrity of commodities in storage.

“We are dedicated to making sure the best storage options are available to help elevators preserve harvested grain for as long as possible,” Wood added. “Helping to protect what our farmers worked so hard to produce is an important step in keeping a safe and efficient food supply system.”

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FSA Administrator Urges ARC/PLC Decisions at Commodity Classic

Phoenix, AZ – USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator Val Dolcini took an important message to one the largest gatherings of agricultural stakeholders in the nation, the recent 20th Annual Commodity Classic. He met with corn, soybean and wheat growers to urge members to complete their decisions on the safety-net options offered by the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program by the deadline of March 31, 2015.

ARC and PLC were created by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill to help farmers avoid financial losses caused by price or revenue declines brought on by weather or an unexpected downturn in markets. The one-time election of ARC or PLC remains in effect through the 2014 – 2018 crop years.  If an election is not made by March 31, the farm will not be eligible for 2014 crop year payments and will default to PLC through 2018.

Dolcini addressed six regional caucuses of the American Soybean Association, five regional caucuses of the National Corn Growers Association caucus, the Corn Congress, and a few smaller meetings held by the commodity groups involved with Commodity Classic.

Dolcini also reminded landowners of their rare opportunity to update farm yields and reallocate base acres. The deadline for this decision also is March 31. If not changed by the deadline, the farm’s current counter-cyclical yield and base acres will be used.

Broadcasters and print media covering the 20th annual event, which broke attendance records for the second straight year, also sought time from Dolcini to learn more about the deadlines. Dolcini stressed to listeners and readers to use these weeks to finalize conversations and decisions on the ARC or PLC choice. He said acting early will help to avoid potential waits during peak activity periods in FSA offices as the deadline draws near.


Adminstrator Dolcini interviewed at Commodity Classic: Five of 14 media interviews conducted, including Sabrina Hill, West AgNet (left); Tony St. James, All Ag Network (topright); Curt Lancaster, Texas Farm Bureau News/Radio (top center); Mindy Ward, Farm Progress/Missouri Ruralist (center); and Duane Toews, KFRM 550 AM Radio (bottom).
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A New Partnership Prepares Farmers for Complex Decisions

An important new partnership is preparing agricultural producers for decisions that need to be made soon so farmers can participate in safety-net programs that were created by the 2014 Farm Bill. Congress gave USDA and the Cooperative Extension System a mandate to educate America’s farmers and ranchers to help them prepare for managing their annual risks. USDA’s Farm Service Agency and the Cooperative Extension System teamed up to host joint meetings all over rural America, offering details on the new programs contained in the farm bill. There are more than 2,900 Extension offices throughout the United States, perfect settings at which educational forums could prepare producers for the decisions ahead of them.

“Farm bill outreach and education has been a rigorous exercise for all of us,” said FSA Administrator Val Dolcini as he praised employees and educators on the recent rollout of the Dairy Margin Protection Program, the first of the risk management programs. “In addition to enrolling more than half of the dairy operations around the country, we learned the value of partnership between the nation’s Cooperative Extension System and employees at the Farm Service Agency.” Continue reading

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Microloan Puts Rancher on Profitable Path


Sam T. Begay used a microloan to improve his herd and have a successful operation.

By Harriet Man, Senior Loan Officer, Arizona Farm Service Agency

Sam T. Begay was looking for ways to improve his cattle herd production. He needed to change his breeding program by adding Angus bulls, which ultimately would improve his marketability.

“It seemed like an impossible goal because it’s hard to obtain credit from local lenders to purchase cattle,” said Begay, who operates his ranch on a Navajo reservation in Pine Springs.

After learning about the Farm Service Agency microloan from an outreach meeting, Begay saw a way to turn impossible into possible.

FSA developed the microloan program to serve the unique financial operating needs of beginning, niche, and the smallest of family farm operations. These smaller farms and ranches often face limited financing options.  The microloan offers access to up to $50,000 with a simplified application process and less stringent requirements associated with larger loans. Continue reading

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Pitching Aquaculture and Microloans Is a Marine Veteran’s New Mission

photo 4

Michael McCarthy used an FSA Microloan to help expand his clam business.

Raising clams has always been a part of Michael McCarthy’s life — until Sept. 11, 2001.

“That was my motivation,” said McCarthy, who was working with the New York/New Jersey Harbor relay program, purging and harvesting clams, when terrorists crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center. “You could look across the water and see the Towers. We were shut down for a couple of weeks and that’s when I decided to join the Marines.”

Wanting to do his part, Michael enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. “I knew I wasn’t going to do it for the rest of my life, but I felt like I did something to help a little bit.”

That’s the same commitment McCarthy made following an honorable discharge from service. He returned to New Jersey and reconnected with the clam industry he has loved since he was 5 years old. But this time it was a lot different.  As a returning veteran, working in the industry became more than just a job during high school or a means to earn money during college summer break. This time, he was going to do it on his own. Continue reading

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