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Illinois farmer helps others navigate FSA programs

by Atlanta Business Journal

Tim Berry will be taking 12 acres of his of land marked with gullies near a river tributary out of corn and putting it into the Conservation Reserve Program this year.

The eastern Illinois farmer knows exactly how and why to use the USDA Farm Service Agency’s conservation program that will help prevent erosion and improve soil health.

“If I didn’t we’d all be in trouble,” said Berry, who is part of a family farming operation in Champaign and Douglas counties that dates back to his great-great-grandfather.

The reason he is so confident about knowing how FSA services work is because he has worked for the agency at either the state or county level for 36 years. When it comes to navigating FSA programs, he has experience on both sides, as a farmer and as an FSA service provider.

Initially, he had planned to be a full-time farmer, but his career at the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which FSA was called when he started, suits him well.

For a time in his career, he worked at the state level as an auditor, but he prefers interacting directly with farmers as the executive director for Douglas and Piatt counties.

By far the most popular FSA programs among farmers today are the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs, authorized by the 2014 and 2018 farm bills, to provide financial protections to farmers from substantial drops in crop prices or revenues.

“Almost all farmers use ARC/PLC here,” Berry said of farmers he works with at the Tuscola office in Piatt County and Monticello in Douglas County.

In his two counties, 95% of farmers are enrolled in ARC and 97% in PLC, he said.

In the past four years, yields have been pretty good here, and prices have been significantly above the $8.40/bushel protection for soybeans and $3.70 for corn, so few farmers have had to use these safety nets.

“Participation is still there. You never know when prices are going to turn around and go the other way,” he said.

The 2023 farm bill debate will include conversation about the ARC/PLC reference prices as input costs rise, he said.

FSA’s Conservation Reserve Program is the other top program here. Funding assistance for filter strips, for example, is often used by farmers, including Berry, who have highly erodible land.

It’s a good investment for many farmers to get the annual rental fee to keep portions of highly erodible land in CRP and out of production for 10 years, he said.

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Before the pandemic, 95% of the service to farmers was done face-to face, he said. But COVID-19 changed all that.

“For the first few months it was a struggle,” he said of the offices being closed.

As specialized online, secure service was set up, and as farmers started to come in the offices wearing masks, things got rolling again.

FSA offices are fully open now and most farmers are back, but some prefer to keep using the online options. When they are busy with field work, it’s handy not to have to come into the field office, Berry said.

During the peak pandemic period, there were a lot of ad hoc programs for market assistance and such to help farmers through that period. Most of that is done now, he said.

While the ARC/PLC and conservation programs remain the two most used FSA services by far here in the Midwest, in recent years the Farm Storage Facility loan program has also been a big hit among farmers, Berry said. It helps them finance grain storage systems with three to 12-year loans with low interest rates.

In 2020 and 2021, those rates were as low as 1%. Now they have crept back up to 4% as all interest rates rise, but they are still lower than traditional lending institutions, he said.

Farmers know what their loan payments will be for the 3- to 12-year period, and if the loan is for under $100,000, farmers don’t need additional security or collateral other than the new grain system, he said.

Other farmers take advantage of programs for beginning and small farms and specialty crops.

Those who have been farming less than 10 years can get assistance with land purchases or operation loans, Berry said.

FSA provides non-insured crop disaster protection for farmers growing specialty crops for which they can’t get crop insurance from other providers.

Another growing niche is organic.

“We’re seeing more and more organic in both counties,” Berry said.

Even four years ago, no farmers were getting funding for organic certification. Now there are five producers in Douglas County and two in Piatt. More are in the works as they go through three years of transition before being eligible to get funding assistance for the certification process, he said.

While the numbers of new organic grain growers are still very small in central and east central Illinois, they are growing, he said.

In other parts of the Midwest, the Dairy Marketing Assistance is also popular. In Douglas County, six producers are enrolled and none in Piatt, Berry said.

“Our middle name is ‘Service,’” Berry said, and the idea is to help farmers find the services they need and can benefit from.

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