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Farmers Want to Plow Under Plan to Merge Ag Service Offices

Farming is still the No. 1 industry in Chatham County, but area farmers could soon lose a valuable resource.

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PITTSBORO, N.C. — Farming is still the No. 1 industry in Chatham County, but area farmers could soon lose a valuable resource.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to close 12 Farm Services Agency offices around the state, including one in Pittsboro. The FSA has offices nationwide, providing farmer education, commodity loans, equipment loans and disaster assistance.

Regional officials with the USDA said the Pittsboro office could be merged with a newer office in Sanford, which they said has more potential for expansion. The Chatham County office is housed in a 57-year-old building and employs three.

"Our citizens up here shouldn't be penalized for being more frugal," said Charlie Bolton, who raises hay and cattle in the Silk Hope community and serves as chairman of the Chatham County Agricultural Advisory Committee. "Apparently, the only thing they're going to save is the rent on the office space in Pittsboro."

Chatham County has 1,128 farms, compared with 304 in Lee County. It also has 118,752 acres of farm land to Lee County's 46,084 acres. Chatham County also ranks third statewide with 37,000 head of cattle, more than 10 times the 3,500 head in Lee County, which ranks 61st in the state.

A merged FSA office in Sanford would be tough on growers in sprawling Chatham County, Bolton said.

"It'd be over 30 miles (away from farmers) in this corner of the county where the crops are grown," he said.

Keith Weatherly, FSA state executive director, said some offices in North Carolina became obsolete when tobacco quota and price support programs were eliminated.

"Every state has been asked, how can we better use our resources and taxpayer money?" Weatherly said.

Public hearings would be held before final recommendations are sent to to the U.S. agriculture secretary and Congress. No public hearings have been scheduled.

Officials also have said road and technology improvements, such as the Internet, have rendered some sites unnecessary.

Clarence Durham said he isn't convinced online help will be beneficial to his fellow farmers.

"Chatham farmers are old enough that they probably wouldn't use the Internet as much," said Durham, who credited FSA crop insurance with saving his livelihood during an extended drought in the 1980s.

"Some things can be done over the Internet, but we don't have high-speed Internet in a lot of this county," Bolton said.


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