USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission area

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue, speaks with U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and staff at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 2018.

The Trump administration has created a new administrative division in the new Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission area that will have the same stature as the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Risk Management Agency (RMA), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The new FPAC Business Center’s responsibilities will include authority over information technology, a USDA area that has been plagued with problems for years. The new division will move employees from different agencies to focus on technology at the other agencies that interact with farmers.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last September that the administration intended to create a business center to reduce what it sees as “redundancies and inefficiencies” in the management of the three USDA divisions, but few details have emerged until now.

Heather Manzano, the acting RMA administrator, announced the establishment of the new division on Feb. 5 at the crop insurance industry convention in Phoenix, AZ. Manzano also spoke about the new division at the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau annual meeting there on Feb. 2.

Moving employees out of FSA, RMA, and NRCS to the new Business Center is not without controversy. After Manzano’s presentation on Feb. 2, Brandon Willis, the RMA administrator in the Obama administration, told DTN, “Historically when you’ve taken things like this outside of the agency, the customer service falls. Hopefully, there is strong oversight to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Willis explained that the oversight would have to come from the undersecretary and the agency heads. They have not yet been appointed because Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has placed a hold on the nomination of Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey as undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Perdue has said he does not want to appoint the FSA, RMA, and NRCS heads until Northey is confirmed by the Senate. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Steve Censky has said, however, that USDA officials have begun interviewing candidates for those positions.

Robert Johansson, the USDA chief economist who is the acting deputy undersecretary for farm production and conservation, said it will be necessary to make sure that RMA, the smallest of the three agencies, gets the proper level of service. But he noted that the politically appointed heads of FSA, RMA, and NRCS “will have a straight line” to the secretary.

The creation of the FPAC Business Center is part of a Trump administration reorganization of the Agriculture Department following the implementation of the Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs mission area with its own undersecretary, as mandated in the 2014 farm bill.

Previously FSA, RMA, and the Foreign Agricultural Service had made up the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services mission area, which had its own undersecretary. The Trump administration transferred the Foreign Agricultural Service to the new trade mission area and then transferred NRCS from the undersecretary for natural resources and environment to the FPAC.

Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney has assumed his position, but Northey’s confirmation has been held up due to a dispute over ethanol. A source close to the Trump administration said it’s now questionable whether Northey will be confirmed. Northey is also under pressure to decide if he will run for reelection as Iowa agriculture secretary.

Under the new structure, certain administrative personnel from FSA, RMA, and NRCS will be transferred to the new FPAC Business Center, which will have the same level of authority as FSA, RMA, and NRCS.

But while FSA, RMA, and NRCS will be headed by political appointees, the FPAC Business Center will be headed by a civil servant, Robert Stephenson, who holds the title of chief operating officer for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area’s Business Center and executive vice president for the Commodity Credit Corporation, which funds most of the USDA commodity, export, and some conservation programs.

The structure calls for the chief operating officer (COO) to be assisted by a deputy COO for business services and a deputy COO for enterprise services. Tom Christensen, an associate chief of NRCS, has been appointed deputy COO for business services, and Joy Harwood, the FSA chief economist, has been appointed the acting deputy COO for enterprise services and secretary of the Commodity Credit Corporation.

DTN obtained a draft of USDA’s planning document for the FPAC Business Center, but USDA officials said that the FPAC Business Center is not scheduled to be fully operational until Sept. 30, and the structure has not been finalized.

Decisions have not been made about how many FSA, RMA, and NRCS employees would be transferred to the new division, but the responsibilities of the deputy COOs for business services and enterprise are extraordinarily broad.

The creation of the FPAC Business Center appears to be the first of multiple, similar centers that may be created throughout USDA. Perdue indicated in a news release last fall that there were too many chief information officers at difference agencies that creates redundancies throughout the department.

Stephenson, the new COO for the USDA FPAC Mission Area’s Business Center and executive vice president for the Commodity Credit Corporation, was previously the director of the USDA FSA Office of Business and Program Integration.

Stephenson owns the family farm where he was raised. After graduating from the Indiana University School of Business, he returned to his family’s farm until he joined the Agriculture Department in 1984. — Jerry Hagstrom, DTN 

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