The massive spiderweb of jobs and positions run by the USDA received notice last month that vaccinations would be required for both federal and non-federal employees by November 22. This includes the tens of thousands of USDA staff that work at the agency’s major headquarters, but it also includes many who would barely consider themselves employees at all. One example of this is the Farm Service Agency (FSA) field staff, many of whom work only a couple of hours per month and who view the position as similar to serving on a school board. And, according to several reports, some farmers are not at all happy about the vaccine requirements.
The FSA operates hundreds of county-level committees that are responsible for outreach to often very remote, rural agricultural locations. Those committees help guide farmers through loan processes and price guarantee programs, and they make reports about disaster relief and other needs of the local community. It’s sort of a pipeline to places far from the seats of power.
There’s a formal election process for committee members, who serve three-year terms. The majority of these county-level committee members work only a few hours each month, and they are compensated hardly at all (they’ll get a couple of hours of wages at around $20 per hour, plus reimbursement for travel costs). In general, these people are farmers who aren’t in it for the money and who don’t really see themselves as USDA employees; they’re serving their communities in what is effectively a volunteer program that happens to include a few bucks as compensation.
But the USDA’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements will, as USDA chief Tom Vilsack has specified over the past few weeks, include them. There will be the federally mandated exemptions for health or religious grounds, but those exemptions are not particularly easy to get.
Rural America has, from the first release of the vaccine, lagged far behind urban America in vaccination rates. In Nebraska, for example, rural vaccination rates are 14 percentage points lower than in urban areas. Publications such as AgWeb, the Grand Forks Herald and Southern Farm Network have all run stories that include interviews with committee members who refuse to get vaccinated. Many of them insist that this requirement will result in a massive exodus of essential workers in FSA offices. One North Dakota farmer told AgWeek via text message: “Estimates throughout the state of ND indicate that up to 90% of County Committee people will resign as well as 50% of county staffers.”
It’s worth noting that there is absolutely no evidence that those numbers are remotely accurate. Any estimates of potential resignations based on this vaccination requirement are based on local anecdotes and guesswork, and just because someone says they’ll quit rather than get vaccinated does not mean that they actually will. Vilsack, for his part, said, “We will do what we need to do to keep offices open. I don’t anticipate we will see a significant number of closed offices.”
That said, Vilsack has also noted that the USDA currently has significantly fewer employees than the agency had when he had previously served as chief under President Barack Obama. It remains to be seen how real the threats of vaccine-based resignation will be, but certainly these committee members are very important to the operation of the USDA’s programs.