USDA rolls out missing link

The Agriculture Department begins rolling out network servers to all of its service centers this month — the first piece of shared technology that will provide one-stop service for the nation's farmers and cut the workload for USDA employees.

The agency will deliver 3,000 network servers to its service centers across the country and expects to have them operating by June. The program will make it possible for farmers to apply for federal programs online and give three farm agencies the ability to consolidate systems and share data, such as geographic information systems (GIS).

The agency has struggled for years to implement its Common Computing Environment (CCE) program nationwide. Until now, farmers filed separate applications with virtually the same information to the Farm Services Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development, even though their offices are close to one another.

If a farmer owned land in more than one county, it required a drive to different offices for service. But CCE will field a common set of desktop computers, applications and other technologies to thousands of centers so farmers can visit one place for assistance instead of three different agencies. The USDA is seeking support services to install the servers.

"The basic thrust of this is to provide easier access for customers to come in and do business with us," said William Gardner Jr., the USDA's senior policy adviser for service center implementation.

By June, the county offices will have a "robust" shared e-mail system and centralized applications for programs such as crop insurance. They will also have access to twice as much data, such as aerial maps of farmers' lands. Congress earmarked $60 million in the fiscal 2002 budget for CCE and is keeping a close eye on the $350 million project.

"We'll be watching the rollout of the servers and making sure they work," one congressional source said.

The goal, according to Gardner, is to "put technology in the hands of our people who drive out to the customer, walk in the fields with them and give them the technology in the middle of a corn field."

Scott Slovin, CCE's program manager who is based in Fort Collins, Colo., said Compaq Computer Corp. has a $28 million contract to install the network servers to replace legacy systems that made it impossible for the three agencies to talk to one another. It will connect 45,000 workstations throughout the USDA's system. The USDA recently selected Intelligent Decisions Inc., a Chantilly, Va., firm, for a $7.7 million contract to provide more than 9,000 Dell Computer Corp. computers to its centers.

"We expect the farmers to continue visiting the field offices. But the farm community uses the computer and Internet," Slovin said.

Providing electronic services for farmers is a growing trend, according to Cliff Ganschow, chief executive officer of Agristar Global Networks Ltd., a satellite-based communications company that will provide wireless services to the nation's biggest farms in the next two years.

"I certainly wouldn't say USDA is behind the curve," Ganschow said. "Things are happening so fast [with respect to the Internet] that some who plowed the ground too early ended up with no harvest."

But now, the USDA has stepped back and analyzed what this "connectivity can do and how it can best do it. I'd say they were about where they should be," he said.

It won't be a minute too soon, according to Don Gearing, who rep.resents three coalitions of USDA employees.

The workload at the service centers has increased 73 percent since 1993, but the number of employees has steadily fallen through hiring freezes and attrition. At the same time, the centers are becoming responsible for administering a larger chunk of the USDA's $73.5 billion yearly budget.

"Without this common computing platform, there is going to be no way to do the workload that is coming," Gearing said. "It's the only thing that is going to let employees go home nights."

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The Agriculture Department's Common Computing Environment will field a common set of desktop computers, applications and other technologies to thousands of service centers so farmers can visit one place for assistance instead of three different agencies.

This month, the USDA begins distributing 3,000 network servers to the centers, giving them shared e-mail, centralized applications for programs such as crop insurance and access to twice as much data, including aerial maps of farmers' lands.

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