Will COVID vaccine mandates slow farmers down? Fewer workers at USDA might mean fewer services.

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack answers questions from the press after touring the Griffeon family farm, on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Ankeny, Iowa.

USDA COVID-19 vaccine mandates might soon wreak havoc in Kansas and across the nation. Along with requiring all USDA and Farm Service Agency personnel to obtain vaccinations, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is requiring elected officials who work on FSA committees to be vaccinated as well.

Senior Director of the Kansas Farm Bureau Ryan Flickner said representatives in his agency along with their constituents are concerned with services and deliverables from the USDA.

"We're hearing all sorts of numbers of resignations and retirements; a lot of folks are fulltime employees — are eligible for retirement (and) are choosing, as I understand it, to take early retirement,"  Flickner said. "If we don't have fulltime employees in place, and certainly if we lose a lot at the "volunteer county committee levels," we have some real fear of whether or not USDA can actually service and deploy the programs that the Farm Bill and other federal legislative pieces require them to do."

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On Sept. 22, USDA announced that all federal employees must receive the final doses of any of the three vaccines being administered in the U.S. by Nov. 8.

"As the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in light of the public health guidance regarding the most effective and necessary defenses against COVID-19, I have determined that to promote the health and safety of our workforce and their families and children, it is necessary to require COVID-19 vaccinations for Federal General Schedule (GS) employees, non-Federal County Office (CO) employees in the Farm Service Agency (FSA), and elected or appointed FSA County and State Committee members (collectively “non-Federal employees”)," Vilsack wrote in a memo two days earlier. 

Heather Busch, who farms in Gray County and was elected to the FSA County Committee last fall, said she was elected to serve her members, and she wants to protect their rights as well as hers. Each county in Kansas has from two to three county committee members. These people are elected and serve for three years. 

Committee members help decide and administer FSA agricultural programs that serve the needs of local farmers and ranchers.

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"I am fighting for the choice of myself as an elected official for the county. I'm fighting for the choice of the employees of the Farm Service Agency, and I'm also fighting for the producers because we don't know how far the Biden administration will push mandates, so I am fighting for the choice," Busch said. "I personally don't feel there's been enough research done for me to feel comfortable taking the vaccine."

Busch said she does not want to be the gatekeeper either. 

"They (the producers) shouldn't have to report to me or to the government that they got or didn't get a shot," she said. "It's none of my business."

Busch gets paid two hours a month by FSA, but like other county committee official, she ends up putting in more hours.

Flickner said, if dozens of people like Busch, as well as meat inspectors, veterinarians and the countless workers who run the USDA are no longer there, farmers and ranchers will be stuck without employees to answer questions, inspect their goods or certify their fall acreage by Dec. 15.

"How does USDA expect to do that when we're hearing considerably high numbers may choose to retire or resign?" he asked. "If there are not employees there to take certification and take paperwork and work through the documents that are required, what recourse do producers have to make sure that they uphold their end of the bargain?"

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According to the USDA website, "USDA is made up of 29 agencies and offices with nearly 100,000 employees who serve the American people at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad."

By eliminating positions across all sectors of the agency, this action would affect farmers and ranchers everywhere. And, Flickner said, he is concerned about rural parts of Kansas. 

"The biggest concern right now is they just don't have the manpower to administer programs," he said. "Our farmers and ranchers are going to be significantly impacted."