USDA to go mobile

The Agriculture Department this month plans to kick off a pilot program that includes using mobile offices to deliver its services to farmers who live in under-served areas, such as Indian reservations.

The mobile offices are part of the USDA's larger service center initiative that co-locates the USDA's farm service agencies—the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and Rural Development—in field offices nationwide. Those agencies will use a common computing environment and will be able to share information and provide farmers with one-stop shopping for services such as farm and housing loans.

However, some areas such as Indian reservations and parts of the South are not served by any of the 2,500 USDA service centers. The USDA plans to use the mobile office pilot program, which will last about a year, to provide services to these areas.

The mobile offices will be made up of about four 34-foot vans with laptops, telecommunications capability, videoconferencing systems and satellite communications to upload and download data. "We want to make those programs more mobile to take them out to the under served areas," said Steven Rubin, lending and outreach project coordinator with the service center implementation team at the USDA.

ICES Ltd. last month won a $200,000 contract to revamp and equip the vans, which the department purchased from the Air Force. The vans will be similar to how the service center offices are set up, including the same desktop computer configuration, applications and other technologies. PictureTel Corp. videoconferencing systems will be used for more detailed or follow-up interviews between USDA employees and farmers.

"The USDA wants to see, using a variety of tools, what they can do to reach out to the public," said Vince VanLear, business development manager at ICES.

Although the concept of mobile offices is a new one for the company, VanLear said he expects it to become popular. "There is a market for this absolutely," he said. "As budgets get cut and agencies have fewer people in the field to do the work, they will need to use tools and technology to spread the work."

ICES plans to work closely with the General Services Administration to provide custom vehicles on a larger scale, VanLear said.

The mobile office pilot will be tested in North Dakota, but the USDA hopes to expand the program and purchase 12 more vans by the end of next year. "We don't envision that the vans will be used just to deliver the three agency programs," Rubin said. "The key to outreach is also partnering. We envision a nurse practitioner going to an Indian reservation to provide vaccinations to school children. A lot of departments are leaving the rural areas. We want other departments to use us for [program] delivery."

In conjunction with the mobile office pilot, the USDA will install computer kiosks nationwide so farmers can check if they are eligible for particular loan programs. The kiosks will enable farmers to fill out worksheets, print loan applications and obtain directions to the nearest service center for more information.

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