The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.
by Dessa Rodeffer, Quill Publisher/Owner
Nearly twenty-three years and Donald Fry of Stronghurst says he is walking away from working for the federal government and his Farm Service Agency (FSA) job as County Executive Director with no regrets.
Turning 65 this week he is looking forward to his retirement which began Monday, Presidents Day.
A retirement open house will be held in his honor on Thursday, February 25th from 1:30 to 4 p.m. at the FSA on Agency in West Burlington, Iowa.
Ironically, Fry said his first and last day of work were both on Presidents' Day.
"My first day of training, also happened to be my birthday (Feb. 16)" Fry chuckles, "and my wife wondered what kind of job I had landed that on my first day, and my birthday, they would reward me with pay and the day off."
After 6 weeks of initial training, Fry became Des Moines County Iowa's CED (County Executive Director) on April 24, 1987.
Although his job started with paid holidays and periodically, days off, he had his work cut out for him as director over 1400 farms, and meeting with 750-800 producers on a regular basis. "Absentee landlords, we never saw," he said.
Fry's job involved overseeing an office of six staff members which, has now been cut down to four, who worked to implement the government's ever-changing farm programs and inform the producers.
Fry came to the job after twenty years of teaching Vocational Agricultural classes at the high school level in Bardolf, then Sherrard, and in 1976 he and his family moved to Stronghurst where he taught his first year at Union and Southern in Henderson County. The following year, Union hired their own Ag Instructor Tom Faulkner and Fry was able to devote full time to teaching agriculture at Southern in Stronghurst.
Then he went from working two blocks from his home to traveling 18 miles to West Burlington, Iowa.
"It wasn't a bad transition from the public school system to the federal ASCS office except I had to learn to read government documents and make sense out of them, so I could explain them to the farming public," Fry said. "I found I had only changed from the classroom setting to the office counter and public meeting rooms, and that the age of the student had increased tremendously, from teenagers to mature adults."
Fry conducted many public meetings across the county with the most popular place the Southeastern Community College theater and their large meeting room.
Fry found that teaching had benefited him greatly, cause he was use to talking in front of a group. Most of the lectures he gave informed the farming public of new programs and procedures that dealt with production, conservation, price-support, and farm loans.
These were the 4 major programs his office was in charge of, and there are umpteen other things they are asked to do. Fry says, " We have 30 some handbooks that deal with programs and some of those have multiple handbooks."
And then there were the terms each of us need to become familiar with and every program and the office had its initials to learn.
"Curt Eisenmayer often joked on the radio in his farm commentary during interviews, "Well, what new initial do you have for us today?'" Fry said, "and the programs kept changing."
"When I started it was the government Set Aside Program. The government basically told you what to plant and where you were going to plant it."
"Then, there was the Production Flexibility Program which allowed producers to plant what they wanted where they wanted as long as it was in their base acres.
"Then there was the Direct Counter-Cyclical where farmers were guaranteed so much government income and if prices fell below a certain price level, they were guaranteed an additional payment.
"They modified that to the Acre Program which is a revenue based program rather than a yield based program.
That is just on the production based side.
In Price support, Fry started when it was the PIC Program (payment in kind), to qualify, producers had to have an ASCS grain loan. PIC allowed producers to buy certificates for X number of bushels of grain from the elevators or grain dealers and then bring them into the ASCS office before it closed that afternoon and redeem grain at a lower price than what it would be the following morning.
"It was a wild and crazy last hour and half at the end of the day," Fry recalls.
"Somedays, when it looked like a major shift, say it closed 10 cents up for the day, elevator or grain dealers would meet the producer at the ASCS office in West Burlington with the certificates, to save time. They'd come from Yarmouth, Oakville or Sperry or other elevator locations to meet the deadline and it was pretty hectic in the parking lot and at our counter."
The PIC program turned into the LDP (Loan Deficiency Program) where the producer could come in when the market price is low and redeem their grain at that price rather than the loan price without the hassle of the certificates and the extra paper work.
Earlier, with the PIC program, we might end the year with 4 file cabinets (not drawers) of certificates leaving us a massive amount of paper work to do.
The LPD is still in place, but instead of strictly dealing with grain, it has expanded to other products such as wool, honey, and lentil crops that are grown elsewhere in the country.
When Don was in training, in Conservation, they were doing the Conservation Reserve Programs CRP #4. The producer could choose from 4 practices and was given additional payment if he would reduce corn based acres.
This would affect his set-aside program for the next ten years rather than the one year. He would choose from:
1-cool season grasses
2-warm season grasses
4-or combination of the 3.
The practices were soil and water conservation based to enhance soil and erosion control and water quality.
Today, the CRP program has expanded from 4 seeding options to over 30 different choices for the Midwest.
Many of the practices are also wildlife and habitat based practices, Fry said, with the most recent, the Quail initiative which is extremely popular in both Iowa and Illinois. Both met their maximum within the first year and half of the program.
The wild geese habitat nesting and resting areas for the flight trail north to south is another popular one.
The states operate off the same rules and regulations except where the state has options for their report deadlines due to the geographical differences and crops. For example, annual crop reports deadline differs between Iowa and Illinois due to the double cropping in southern Illinois.
FSA also implements the Emergency Conservation Programs ECP that takes a natural disaster and brings that into play.
In the early 90s Fry said they had an 8" plus rainfall in 12 hours that did massive soil erosion from Henry County in New London, north of Danville and exited north of Mediapolis and headed toward Oakville.
With that disaster, they approved and sent out over $300,000 worth of emergency cost share assistance to repair the damages, terraces, and waterways.
Then on the other-side of the ECP, a few years later, they had a drought and were drilling wells for livestock water, and new water sources for livestock, not allowed for human consumption.
In 2008, there was heavy flooding in June, and flash flooding in September after heavy rainstorms, and in June 2009, heavy rain in the Yarmouth territory where the highway department had closed over 36 county roads.
February 11th, almost eight months later, the last of the inspections and approvals were finally finished to determine they were eligible. So with the federal funds locked in, they must now get repairs done and bring in their bills before they can receive their payments.
In the twenty some years Fry has been with the agency, they have only implemented the ECP five times, and three of those were in the last year and a half.
FARM LOAN PROGRAM
The Farm Loan Program is now part of the FSA. In 2002 it was moved from the Farm Home Administration (FHA) to the CFSA which is now called FSA. The housing and business loans of FHA are now under the Rural Development (RD).
Fry says, "Our farm loan division of FSA is headquartered in Mt. Pleasant and serves 4 counties. They take care of youth loans, 4-H & FFA loans, beginning farmer loan programs, farm operating loans, farm ownership programs with certain economic guidelines needed to qualify. The office is on its own to help keep the privacy of the applicant, although they will travel to the FSA office in West Burlington to meet applicants if they so desire.
LOOKING OVER 22 YEARS
Fry said in looking over the 22 years the biggest headache is the changes in programing, software, and computers.
"We went from IBM System 36 where all the data was stored in one building for your county to today's modern web based computers with producer data stored at regional hubs. A producer can call up his data for any farm nation-wide and complete any program, enrollments or reporting at the FSA office nearest him if he knows his farm numbers."
"Until the last nine months," Fry says, "I have entirely enjoyed my job but with all the computer software programs, and web-based applications, payment changes, rules and regulations, I am excited about my retirement."
"For 21 years we made CRP annual payments the first week of October, required by law. We were always able to make the check by direct deposit or print off the paper work and have it in the mail in a week.
"This year we finally, on Thursday morning, got the 2nd from the last CRP payment mailed that should have been made in October, 4 months ago, simply because of software changes that is suppose to be cost saving by doing it in Kansas City. The late payments the government (you and I) is having to pay would more than paid for our help to have done the job, and in a timely manner."
The biggest blessing in his 22 years has been the staff, he said which has been reduced from 6 to 4.
"I have been extremely fortunate with the staff. I go to district, state, and federal meetings regularly and hear of 3 or 4 appeals they have, every meeting. I wonder what are they not explaining to them that allows this to happen. We might have that in a year."
Fry hired and helped break in one staff member, but the other three were there with a wealth of knowledge on Des Moines County farms, the producers, and the services available. The girls spoon feed the producers and they understand the programs and know the right questions to ask. They also knows such things as "the Jones property" even though the Jones' haven't owned the property for 40 years. They have a terrific memory bank and have made it so easy for me," Fry said. "They have an extremely thorough knowledge of the producers and can almost predict problems before a producer knows he has it."
Fry has many stories to tell about unique situations, but his usual style is to invite the farmer back to his office and talk about it with an understanding ear, In some instances he tells them, "I wish I could change the law, too, but I can't, and I am just here to see the law is followed. I wish I could do more."
Only one time, was he and the staff concerned over a unusual out of control producer, but in the end, they were able to appeal and get some help for his uncommon situation.
Fry is looking forward to retirement and eventually having his wife Carolyn, head librarian at the Henderson County Library, join him. "She drove the first bookmobile as a college student and has worked for the system over 30 years," he said. "She loves her work but first, she wants me to settle in."
Fry looks forward to developing the five lots he owns just south along the library in Biggsville and doing landscaping design work on a contract basis. He also enjoys doing lath artwork.
The Frys have 2 children, Jennifer married to Michael Tallman who lives south of Madison, Wisconsin, with two children Sophia-5 and James 2 1/2; and a son Kent Fry in Quincy who has one daughter Madison, 10. The three grandchildren will help keep him busy as well as the things he told his wife he would do later.
His advice to producers in 2010, "Watch for your deadlines and be patient, because the staff needs time to prepare your paper work. They will bend over backwards to help you."
Fry said if you make an appointment. It will save you an hour or more in wait time. It will give them time to pull your contracts, locate your files and have them printed off.
The CED that will replace Fry may be some time coming due to budget constraints. He said it would be close to a year before they can advertise for the position. Meanwhile, John Bartenhagen CED from Louisa County Iowa will drive to West Burlington a couple times a week while the staff takes on extra duties as well.
The public is invited to Fry's Retirement Open House Thursday, February 25th from 1:30 to 4 p.m. at the FSA on Agency in West Burlington, Iowa. It's located across east from Bickels Bicycle business.