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The Little Guy Won!  RSS feed

 
Travis Johnson
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I cannot believe this actually happened, but I won. Now let me explain.

About 3 years ago I applied for a USDA-NRCS EQUIP Cost Share Program to convert a corn field I had into a grass field. It is a long story, but basically when a dairy farm that used my fields went bankrupt, I was left with a big problem. The field was on a 15% grade, with highly-erodible soil. Twice the water coming off this field washed out so bad into a paved roadway that I had to take the loader of my tractor and scoop the soil back up and put it into my field.

Well I applied for the program (essentially a grant), but the USDA-NRCS nevr explained anything about what I applied for. They also never showed up on farm. The day before the deadline, the woman running the NRCS called up and asked where the field was, and I told her, but all she wanted to do was pass the paperwork in and get the deadline over...a paper shuffle. So I was denied the grant, but a farmer only has 15 days to file and appeal, then another 15 days to file another another document saying you really want an appeal. Well I missed the deadline for that years appeal...

Automatically your request gets rolled into the next year, and sure enough it was denied again. I WAS LIVID. Because my wife is on the board that over-sees the NRCS I knew they had more funding available then what they had applications for, in essence they had money to pay for it, not to mention soil erosion was what the NRCS was founding upon in 1936. And now 3 years had passed and no one from the NRCS even bothered to show up on my farm. Well this time I was denied I did not miss the appeal.

A farmer has to pretty much jump through hoops in quick succession to do it, but I basically filed a federal lawsuit over this. The next day the local NRCS people showed up. I was working at the Christian camp, and yet they did not care, they wanted to talk to me at all costs. They were not used to a farmer filing a federal lawsuit over their inaction. They tried to get me to drop the lawsuit, but I was mad. They had not showed on the farm for 2 years, but I file a lawsuit and they are willing to show up anywhere to meet me the day after!

So the pre-hearing by phone went well even though I figured I would lose. The system is screwy, a farmer has to prove the NRCS was wrong, and yet the NRCS cannot be found guilty even if they did something wrong. As the Federal Judge admitted, the whole appeal system is just a way for farmers to vent. I was hoping to show that some issues were going on in my county, that the USDA-NRCS had their noses stuck in computer screens and not getting out of the office to talk to farmers.

I also elected to have the trial held in person, in Bangor, Maine and not by mail or over the phone. So they flew the Federal Judge out to Bangor to have this hearing in January. I was pretty much screwed because there was no accountability on the part of the NRCS, they just said, "we went by policy", which is true they did, even though they admitted it was a flawed policy. Now I say that because I was denied because crop rotating a field is not a "core practice", it is a minor practice that essentially does not get funded. It does not even get ranked. BUT no one explained this because no one ever talked to me, it was just a paper shuffle. However if I had put down that the ground was forever going to be grass and not rotated between corn and grass, it was a "core practice", I would have been ranked higher, and because of the high amount of funding, the fact that the watershed is high priority, I am a beginner farmer, and low income; I would have most likely been funded. But they never showed up and explained this, so I was thinking where row crops get all the funding here, putting down crop rotation was a better choice.

Well I go to court and really have nothing. My wife testifies that funding was available, but we were still denied. And me, I just say that the USDA-NRCS has a silly argument; "its like going down the road, seeing a bridge is out, driving into the river and telling the cop, 'well the GPS System said take this road.' They knew it was a flawed policy, but just did it anyway. They knew showing up on a farm was a requirement."

Well wonder of wonders the Federal Judge sent me his verdict and said I met an incredibly hard burden of proof, that the NRCS was wrong because they never granted me the technical assistance I asked for, they had funding and denied me, and that his recommendation was basically get my project funded after the fact! I can't believe I actually won.

This is good because the field in question was ripped open, but because I lacked the funding to sow it down, it just got worse as far as erosion goes, and basically I was left with a mess when the dairy farm filed for bankruptcy and left it. (They were supposed to crop rotate between grass and corn every 3 years because of the hillside and erodible soil). They also changed the policy down to the local NRCS office and now every farm applying must be visited, which is good, no more office-jockies.

But in a nut shell, the little guy took on city hall and won!
 
wayne fajkus
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Wow. I think I'm into year 2, with a request for them to come visit my place.  No contact from them. I did call after 1 year and they said I was still on the list.

They were funding paddock fencing. Not perimter, just internal. I guess that's the big thing right now. I'll have it all done before they show up.
 
Anne Miller
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Congratulations, Travis

I wonder if its not standard procedure to turn people down and make them appeal?
 
Travis Johnson
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wayne fajkus wrote:Wow. I think I'm into year 2, with a request for them to come visit my place.  No contact from them. I did call after 1 year and they said I was still on the list.

They were funding paddock fencing. Not perimter, just internal. I guess that's the big thing right now. I'll have it all done before they show up.


I got funded for that a few years ago. Its worth it because they pay three years to rotational graze...which I was doing anyway. In fact that was how I got funded. I tried keeping my sheep in with a variety of fences and they all failed. But my farm is situated along about a mile of road with the majority being away from the road with the fields terminating into forest. The sheep could care less about going into forest when they have lush grass ahead of them, so I just put up a fence along the road so they did not get hit by cars, and let them free-range the rest of the farm. Now when I mean free range, I mean free-range; no fences other then along the road. The NRCS guy shows up and says, "so do you rotational graze?" I said I would but I can't keep them in", to which he said, "oh we'll pay for that"...and did. That was nice. The interior net fencing did not do me much good, I ended up giving it away in the end, not with wooled sheep, but the Page Wire fencing has worked well.
 
Travis Johnson
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Anne Miller wrote:Congratulations, Travis

I wonder if its not standard procedure to turn people down and make them appeal?


I don't think so, at least not in my county. I don't think they understood how dire the situation was. I tried to convey that to them, but that NRCS person quit shortly after and I think she just slid the paperwork through knowing it would be rejected anyway. That lightened her workload. The others that followed, and I said this in court, had the burden of picking up where she left off. It was a problem that was handed to them.

We had a saying when I worked for the railroad, "Nothing is a problem until it becomes a problem." When I filed a national appeal, it became a BIG problem.

My biggest issue was that the NRCS was not getting out of the office. They are trying to outfit them with laptops so they can be out in the field more, but 90% of their time is in-office. You don't correct soil erosion shuffling paper. A lot of other farmers were having this issue as well, throw in some favoritism, and not conforming to their original by-laws and something had to be done. My county now requires NRCS staff to visit people applying for EQUIP Cost Share Programs. That was what I won on, they never followed their own procedures when I asked them for technical assistance. So that is a win right there.

Now I have to file another appeal and see if I can get my corn field converted to grass to stop the erosion. I started to last year on my own but lacked the money to do it properly and actually made it worse. I ripped it open, tilled it, then smoothed it and got 90% of the rocks off, but never got the seed down. So now it sits there with bare soil. That is bad enough but we got 72 inches of snow in 10 days time and Spring coming. I'll literally have tons of soil migrating North in a few weeks.

NOT what I want.

 
Maureen Atsali
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Wow. I am so surprised, but thrilled for you, and rather proud of the judge also. Good work!
 
Bill Erickson
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Sounds like the "Iron Law of Bureaucracy" was getting up a good head of steam and you vented it, Travis. Good for you.
 
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