The federal government shutdown has closed part of the United States Department of Agriculture office in Hillsdale County — cutting farmers off from financial and administrative services that will prove vital to decision making in the coming weeks.
“It makes us a lot more uncertain on what we’re doing,” said Scott Welden, a grain farmer in Jonesville. Though not dire at the moment, the problem will worsen in the next few weeks if the shutdown drags on, he said.
Located in Jonesville, the Hillsdale County USDA office holds the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The FSA is closed during the shutdown while the NRCS remains fully open. NRCS employees are paid, and the center is operating on prior years’ funds, according to Jason Wheeler, the district conservationist at NRCS. Wheeler said he does not know how much longer the office will stay open, however.
Farmers rely on the FSA for multiple services, including yield reports, land registration, low-interest loans, and other financial transactions.
Farmers can’t get USDA reports on crop inventory and stocks from last year because of the shutdown, said Terry Finegan, board president of the Hillsdale County Farm Bureau. Without the reports, farmers are less certain of how to market and what to plant for the next harvest season; high inventories of a certain crop can lower its price.
Farmers also don’t have access to payments from the Market Facilitation Program, created by the Trump administration to mitigate the impact of tariffs on grain farmers and delivered through the FSA.
“That could be pretty significant on the income side,” Finegan said, noting that farmers could use the MFP cash to buy inputs such as seed and fertilizer. “It directly affects a lot of our decision making on our direction.”
There’s a “window” here, though; farmers usually start planting in April and “like to have stuff locked in” by the end of February, Finegan said.
Loans processed through the FSA are also on hold during the shutdown. Though most well-established farms receive loans through banks and aren’t affected, smaller farms don’t necessarily have that luxury.
“If you were a young farmer and you wanted to expand your farm here, then you might not be able to get that loan to buy property that you need or equipment that you need,” said Sarah Fronczak, environmental management educator at the Michigan State University Hillsdale County extension. “If they’re not established, then this is an important method for them to grow their business, and that’s pretty much unavailable right now.”
The USDA announced Wednesday that many FSA centers, including the one in Jonesville, will be open Jan. 17 – 18 and 22 for specific financial activities, including processing of payments made by Dec. 31 and continuing expiring financial statements. The department also states on its website that farmers who have loans due during the shutdown do not need to make payments until it ends.
Dairy farmers, meanwhile, are facing a hold-up on monthly Dairy Margin Coverage Program payments that are processed through the FSA, said Carleton Evans, who owns a farm in Litchfield and is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Milk Producers co-op.
“It’s not the end of the world, but right now the dairy market is really tight and any time you’re short dollars you were planning on, it’s going to upset your cash flow,” Evans said.
But the government deemed critical the Federal Milk Marketing Order workers, who set milk prices, which is something of a relief, Evans said.
The FSA also deals with registration, acreage certification, and contracts regarding land use, such as renting to tenants, said Mark Kies, who farms grains in northwest Hillsdale County. Even installing tile drainage requires FSA approval, Evans said.
Kies said he’s also concerned that, even if the shutdown ends before long, FSA employees may face a backlog of work that holds back services.
“We’re OK right now. There’s not a lot happening that is a major decision,” Kies said. “But I’d say by the end of January or beginning of February… I think we’re gonna see some effect here in the next two to three weeks.”