By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Pike County Farm Service Agency Executive Director Tom Weisenborn easily recites a harvest update.
"Everybody's saying they're satisfied with the crop. We're getting some pretty common yields for corn, nothing stellar, nothing record-setting, just good solid average yields," Weisenborn said. "With soybeans, there hasn't been enough people getting in to get a good read on that, but most farmers are telling me they have good expectations for their soybean yields."
It's information Weisenborn has gleaned firsthand instead of from his desk at the Pittsfield office.
With the federal government shut down and the FSA office shuttered, "I've been helping out on the farms locally, driving a grain cart," he said. In the office, "this time of year, I don't get to see many farmers. They're too busy doing stuff."
The shutdown idled 15 employees in the Pike County FSA office, and they're busy finding things to fill their time.
This shutdown is a first for Weisenborn, a 29-year FSA employee.
In 1995, when the federal government last shut down, "the USDA was one of two departments that had their appropriations bill passed for the entire year. We were not affected," he said. "This year we don't have our appropriations bill like everybody else. This year we're affected."
Weisenborn worries that a resolution to the shutdown could be "a long ways off" for all the affected employees.
"I've had enough time off," he said. "I've got my projects caught up around the house, got some fall work done around the yard. I'm ready to go back to work."
So are Soil and Water Conservation District employees -- at least in their regular offices in USDA service centers.
"Technically soil and water didn't have to shut down. They're not federal employees; however, they use all the federal equipment in the building. We're not allowed to use the equipment during this furlough," Weisenborn said.
"We took as much work as could do home with us, and we're trying to work that way," said Abbie Sperry, Hancock County SWCD resource conservationist.
"We're still having our fish sale. We are still renting out equipment if people can get hold of us," said Betty Buckert, the county's administrative coordinator. "The Illinois Department of Agriculture, where we're grant funded, is not closed. All reports due to them are still due."
But some projects simply can't move forward.
"There's only so much you can do when you're not set up for working at home," Sperry said. "We need to be in the office."
In Scott County, SWCD employees are working out of the Farm Bureau office in Winchester to ensure continued service to the county's farmers.
Statewide, a number of districts have made "alternate working arrangements" with Farm Bureau or University of Illinois Extension offices.
"Some have other offices they're able to work out of, whether with the county or with somewhere else, and several of them are working out of their home," said Rich Nichols, executive director of the Illinois Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Along with office space, communication has been a headache for district employees.
"All emails and phone numbers are on the federal system. We've been trying to communicate as best we can through our facebook page and our website," Nichols said. "It really is (frustrating), and we have no idea how long this is going to last. The rumors we're picking up indicate maybe as long as the 17th or 18th."
Sperry said she's getting some calls at home -- and so are SWCD Board members who pass along messages -- but she wants things to get back to normal.
The shutdown comes just as SWCD heads into its busiest season of the year.
"As fields are emptied of grain, this is prime construction season, with a lot of folks working on conservation practices, laying out designs and working on getting them constructed," Nichols said.
This week provided perfect conditions " to go and look at projects, and we're missing out. It's just too bad," Sperry said.
Employees hastily made copies of some files before leaving the office when the shutdown began. But "with most construction plans residing on federal systems, at least in most cases, it's creating quite a bit of difficulty. You do what you can," Nichols said. "When they shut down, it really has a broad impact, in some cases, a really unpleasant impact."