WASHINGTON (AP) – More than one-quarter of the nation’s Farm Service Agency offices would close under a plan being pushed by the Agriculture Department.

The department’s proposal would shutter an estimated 665 of the 2,353 offices nationwide, according to an agency “working document” obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the agency.

A department official briefed the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman about the plan Wednesday, and more briefings were planned.

As the central link between farmers and the department, FSA offices help farmers obtain loans and get payments from a number of farm programs. The federal agency has changed names over the years, but its network of offices in local communities dates to the 1930s.

The department’s goal is to modernize a system now burdened with rustic technology and underused offices.

“Are we really serving people when we have some offices that are only open a few hours a day, or that don’t have full-time employees?” said department spokesman Ed Loyd. “That’s a good question to ask, when we have offices where it’s costing us $2 for every dollar of benefits that we’re delivering.”

In more efficient offices, the ratio is less than 2 cents per dollar of benefit, Loyd added.

He said the “working document” is not set in stone and local and state FSA officials will help decide which offices should be closed.

Republicans in Congress reacted cautiously. Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, hasn’t signed off on the plan or seen specifics. He met Wednesday with J.B. Penn, undersecretary for the Agriculture Department’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, to discuss the plan.

“If the goal is to modernize the agency and to train employees for continued service improvement to the customers, the producers, then he understands that reasoning,” said Keith Williams, a spokesman for Chambliss.

Another Agriculture Committee member, Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., called the timing inapt, because Congress may soon be considering disaster aid for farmers battered by Hurricane Katrina, drought and other natural disasters.

He said lawmakers may try to amend a spending bill to delay the modernization plan. But like Chambliss, Talent was open to the idea.

“For me, the issue is service – do our producers have convenient access to an FSA office? That’s the key to me. That’s more important than any particular number of offices,” Talent said. “Now, I am concerned about closing that many offices and the impact that will have on services.”

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican Agriculture Committee member, said he would look carefully at any plan to close FSA offices in his state to make sure services aren’t reduced, “especially with the high cost of energy already an enormous burden for our farmers and ranchers.”

Congressional Democrats were hostile to the idea.

“If this is true, it’s another slap at South Dakota farmers and ranchers from the Bush administration,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee. “There’s no substitute for the face-to-face interaction that producers have with FSA personnel. They need the opportunity to ask questions, to explain their circumstances. To lose that opportunity is going to be a serious problem.”

On the Net:

Farm Service Agency: http://www.fsa.usda.gov

Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

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