Farmers find new leader in federal agency serving Malheur County ag

Deborah Arntz stepped into the local Farm Services Director slot in April. (The Enterprise/ANGELINA KATSANIS).

ONTARIO – For a local resident the Farm Service Building across from the Ontario Municipal Airport can be one of those government buildings easy to miss.

But for a local farmer or rancher, the federal building is familiar.

“We’ve had almost every farmer in the county in here,” said Deborah Arntz, the new executive director of the agency.

Arntz, who stepped into the director’s position in April, is a veteran of the agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She began her career with the Farm Service Agency in Harney County more than two decades ago.

Arntz said she applied for a job at the Harney County Farm Service Agency to find some variety.

“I was a stay-at-home mom. The kids went back to school and I just applied for the job,” said Arntz.

Arntz said she stayed with the agency for more than 15 years in Harney County and then decided to leave “because I got my finance and accounting degrees and wanted to utilize my education.”

Arntz worked for nine years at Oster Professional Group, an accounting firm in Burns, then was employed by the Burns Paiute Tribe for about a year and a half.

Then she heard of another opportunity at the Farm Service Agency.

 “Some people I used to work with thought it might be a good fit for me so I came back in,” said Arntz.

Now she manages three program technicians at one of the most important agriculture agencies in the county.

The Farm Service Agency in Malheur County distributes loans to eligible farmers and ranchers to buy a farm, finance an expansion or to cover production losses from drought or flooding and other natural disasters.

The local Farm Service Agency is also the gateway into more than 15 different programs for farmers and ranchers.

There are two sections at the Malheur County Farm Service Agency. One section handles loans while the other – managed by Arntz – handles agriculture programs. 

On the agriculture side, the focus is chiefly on overseeing the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill is a massive subsidy program that covers a wide range of agriculture and food programs, including commodity revenue support, conservation, trade, farm credit, research and rural development initiatives. The bill is renewed by the Congress every five or six years.

“Every time the farm bill comes out, the programs change. It is constantly changing,” said Arntz.

The agency also directs special programs for farmers and ranchers. For example, said Arntz, her agency managed the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. That program issued 586 payments of more than $17 million to local farmers and ranchers during the Covid pandemic.

“There are some hard-working program technicians in the office that did most of that work,” said Arntz.

The food assistance program helped farmers hit hard by the Covid pandemic.

“A lot of farmers could not sell as many of their crops as they would have normally. There were lots of things during the pandemic that affected the market supply for producers,” said Arntz.

Arntz said she assisted in an effort to “implement USDA’s call center beginning in May 2020 which helped with the workload from producers who were unfamiliar with the Farm Service Agency.”

“We had many producers nationwide who became customers of FSA because of pandemic programs, including fishermen,” said Arntz.

Another program Arntz oversees helps area farmers make up pasture losses because of drought.

Right now, Arntz’s focus is a grasshopper infestation in certain sections of the county. The infestation, she said, is brought on by drought and is mostly concentrated in the southern and northern ends of Malheur County.

“We’ve begun work with other agencies to see if FSA can provide any insight,” said Arntz.

Arntz said the infestation is bad.

“I had a producer send me a photo that showed they are even eating thistles,” said Arntz.

Arntz said the combination of drought and grasshoppers can severely impact a local farmer or ranchers.

“It is devastating to some of the pasture ground in Malheur County,” said Arntz

Arntz said the agency does not carry a specific program to address a grasshopper infestation.

“But we have (programs) for drought and grasshoppers follow drought,” said Arntz.

Arntz grew up near Wichita, Kansas, and made her way to Harney County when her father came to the area to manage a local farm.

Arntz has been married to David Arntz for 38 years and has two grown children and two grandchildren.

Arntz said she has no plans, yet, to retire.

“I’ll be here a while,” said Arntz.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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