BISMARCK, North Dakota — Some North Dakota farm groups are growing concerned about federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates for elected Farm Service Agency county advisory committees and others.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Sept. 20, 2021, issued a statement, saying the vaccine mandate was needed for public health. Zach Duchenaux, the national Farm Service Agency administrator, on Sept. 22, 2021, announced that all federal employees — including state and county committee members and advisers — must be vaccinated by Nov. 22, 2021. In an Oct. 7. 2021, House Agriculture Committee meeting Vilsack said he doesn’t think resistance to vaccination will result in FSA offices closing or reduce service to farmers.

The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association board of directors and the North Dakota Grain Growers on Oct. 18, 2021, drafted a a letter expressing concerns over the FSA workloads and impacts for farm business service if staff or committee members choose not to comply and are then terminated or forced to resign. Jeff Schafer, president of the NDSA, said the letter makes no statement for or against vaccines per se, but is concerned about attrition and human resources.

The two groups brought the letter to the North Dakota Agriculture Coalition on Oct. 20, 2021, meeting in Bismarck, North Dakota. Darrell Oswald, of Wing, North Dakota, chairman of the coalition and a former NDSA director appointed to the post by the group, said the coalition is designed for state matters but that members are considering whether to sign onto the draft letter by a Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, deadline.

One man’s opinion

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Schafer said his state board was prompted to consider the issue the issue at the urging of Tim Erbele, a farmer from Streeter and a member of the NDSA board.

Erbele, on his own and not in his capacity on NDSA, last week began texting concerns to his personal contacts. In the text, obtained by Agweek, Erbele acknowledged individuals could have requested “religious and/or medical” exemptions by Oct. 18, 2021, but some local offices “have not even received the required form to do this and are not guaranteed they will be accepted.”

“Estimates throughout the state of ND indicate that up to 90% of County Committee people will resign as well as 50% of county staffers,” Erbele said in the text message.

Interviewed by Agweek, Erbele could cite only an unnamed source — “some in the FSA system.” Erbele declined to specify at what level, or their information source.

“Replacing those people with vaxed employees that need to be trained would be a challenge to say the least … especially given the already ‘labor shortage’ in the country," Erbele said. “FSA will be crippled to the point that offices will not be able to keep up with all the ever-changing programs they need to administer and ultimately will result in financial shortfalls for producers who rely on any aspect of USDA farm programs for a portion of their income.”

Erbele said his was “not a stance on pro vax or anti vax” but rather simply a “request to let the already overworked and under-staffed local county employees choose if they do or don’t want the jab and allow them to continue to work alongside of us to feed the world.”

In an interview, Erbele also wondered how the mandate could affect vital services provided by federal veterinarians, federal hunters and others who deal with farmers.

“My concern is, having heard from people in our own county, this is not anti- or pro-vaccination. People have told me they’re leaving their jobs because they believe in freedom of choice.”

Committeeman concerns

Perry Moser ranches near Baldwin, North Dakota, about 12 miles north of Bismarck, and has been a member of the Burleigh County FSA committee since 2019

At age, 62, Moser chooses not to get the COVID-19 vaccinated. He contracted COVID at the end of July 2020, when he had light symptoms of sinus congestion, headaches and loss of taste. He said his unvaccinated wife never got tested for COVID after his diagnosis.

Moser won’t get the jab because he believes there’s “not been enough research on it — side effects.” Also, Moser said he’s “been told” that the antibodies from getting the disease are “stronger than the vaccines.” This, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control says vaccination provides a “a strong boost in protection in people who have recovered from COVID.”

Moser adds he’s never taken the influenza vaccinations because he doesn’t feel they “work for me.”

Moser, who also serves on the Burleigh County Farm Bureau board of directors, said his position isn’t partisan.

“I would like to say I vote for the person and not the party, but I lean a little more toward the Republican,” Perry said.

Moser sees his county committee service as a public service. The committee members run for three-year terms, and he would be up for re-election in 2022, and he is inclined to run — “providing they don’t kick me off because of this shot mandate.” He said he “absolutely would run” if the vaccination mandate goes away.

Lindsey Abentroth, a public affairs specialist with the North Dakota state FSA office in Fargo, said FSA employees were asked to self-certify whether they were vaccinated. She said committee are not, in fact, considered federal employees. They are paid hourly at a rate of $18.83 per hour.

North Dakota has 51 FSA service centers, serving 53 counties. Each has three county committee members. Nominations were taken from June 15 through Aug. 2. On Nov. 1 ballots will be mailed to eligible voters — producers of legal voting age. Producers have until Dec. 6 to turn in ballots. Election results are announced in mid-December and the new committees are in place in January.

It isn’t about the money, Moser underlined.

“I make a couple hundred bucks a year,” Moser said, referring to the FSA compensation. Moser said he gets the federal rate to travel meetings. Meetings are held once every month or two and take two or three hours. “I look at it like a service, like serving on a school board, or serving on your local cooperative board.”

Moser said he and his wife “right now” are not getting vaccinated.

“I’m not saying five years down the road, I won’t," he said.

Moser said he has three brothers and two sisters. He thinks three have been vaccinated, two have not.

“I don’t have a problem with them getting vaccinated,” he said. “If you feel it’s going to help, you should do it. But if you aren’t comfortable, no one should force you to do it.”

During the COVID situation, some of the meetings have been held over the internet via Zoom.

Moser said he’d called all three congressional members’ offices. U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, as well as Rep. Kelly Armstrong — all North Dakota Republicans. Cramer’s office got back to him, basically to say they’d “relay it on.” He’d contacted Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s office, who he said is “promoting that everybody get vaccines, but he’s still there for free choice.”

NRCS posts, too

Mary Podoll, North Dakota state conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said all of her agency’s 250 employees will have to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.

For those getting two shots, she said, they need the first shot by Nov. 11. After a two-week waiting period, they need the second shot to make the Nov. 22 deadline.

Podoll said that she’ll receive a report after the deadline, showing how many have received the vaccines. She expects “lots of guidance still to come” on whether the employees will be suspended or removed.

“I’m going to do this with as much dignity, grace, and patience as I can,” Podoll said, without specifying what that means. One issue is that NRCS employees often serve in buildings next to county Soil Conservation District employees, who are state or local employees.

The NRCS often rents offices to these other entities.

“They (SCD employees) are considered ‘visitors’ and eventually they are either going to have to be certified as vaccinated or they are going to have to be tested and verified that they are going to be COVID-free, pretty much on a weekly basis. It really doesn’t matter who owns the space.”

Their status with the NRCS is analogous to non-military contractor employees on military bases, Podoll said.

The North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts supplies 12 “farm bill specialists” who supplement NRCS staff on farm bill issues. The North Dakota NRCS contracts another 36 employees from a group called Heartland Consulting, who provide administrative help. Heartland Consulting is based in McLean, Virginia.