February 02, 2023

Director balances farm, FSA duties

Q&A: Scott Halpin

SOUTH WILMINGTON, Ill. — Scott Halpin is well into his first year as the Illinois Farm Service Agency state executive director and enjoys the opportunities the position provides.

Halpin farms in the Gardner and South Wilmington area with his father, Frank, and his brother, Chris. His son, Ty, has also returned to the farm after finishing his studies at Lakeland Community College.

Halpin Farms and Halpin Farms Cattle raises corn, soybeans, alfalfa hay and silage and has an Angus cow-calf herd.

“My great-grandfather moved here in 1916, so we received our centennial farm designation a few years ago. We had dairy cattle here on the farm from its existence until 2018, when we made the decision to liquidate the herd. We started making the transition to beef cattle a few years before that,” Halpin said.

The Halpins market their beef to local customers and others.

“We’ve really grown the market and since COVID hit, a lot of folks really wanted to buy local. We always did a fair amount of selling our beef locally, but that business has really grown now. Not quite but maybe nearing about half our cattle are fed out and sold locally, mostly by quarters and halves to local folks. We’ll sell the rest of them either to a neighbor or on the open market for other people to feed-out,” he said.

“It’s been really good to get out, keep in touch and keep in the know of what’s happening around the state.”

—  Scott Halpin, state executive director, Illinois Farm Service Agency

The FSA executive director took a short break from his duties at the state agency and on the family farm for an interview with AgriNews.

You’ve been actively involved in various state and local organizations, including the immediate past president of the Kendall-Grundy Farm Bureau and 10 years on the Illinois Farm Bureau and Country Financial board of directors.

Halpin: My grandpa and my dad have always been on about every board you could be on, and that wasn’t always the path I was headed towards. At a young age I didn’t really see those opportunities out there. As I started to get a little older and started to get more involved, it took a little bit of prodding from the Farm Bureau managers that we had along the way, but it wasn’t always Farm Bureau-involved activities.

Amy Rochkes (then-Grundy County Farm Bureau manager) prodded me to get on the Soil and Water Conservation District board and that might have been one of my earlier ventures outside of 4-H growing up. She also encouraged me to get involved with the (Illinois Farm Bureau) Young Leader events and that’s kind of where things took off from there.

The Young Leaders provide a lot of activities, contests and a fun way to get involved, but also teaches leadership skills and the ultimate goal is to get you more involved at a bigger level. I took advantage of those opportunities.

The Young Leaders kind of springboarded me into the Illinois Farm Bureau and Country Financial board and that just opens up a whole new world to the commodity organizations. I went through the Farm Bureau Agriculture Leaders of Tomorrow program and in 2020 I went through the Illinois Agricultural Leadership Program.

So, Farm Bureau has kind of been the focus, but it has opened up doors to many, many organizations.

I’m a member of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. I haven’t been so much involved directly with the organization, but kind of on the perimeter of things. There were a lot of boards, a lot of overlapping committees that I sat on when I was on Farm Bureau.

For instance, there was a tax committee that all organizations were on and I was part of the Farm Bureau representatives that sat on the committee with representatives from corn, soybean, dairy, beef and all of the organizations who were on the tax committee.

Why is it important to be actively involved in ag organizations?

Halpin: We can all spout out the statistics that we’re decreasing numbers in ag. One thing we’ve done really well in ag is, I think, we tell our story well and we put forth policies that make sense and therefore we can keep on the radar of the legislators.

That’s big right now when we’re talking about climate change issues and energy issues and feeding the world.

We might not think in Illinois that the war in Ukraine affects us much, but they are such a large wheat producer, it certainly affects us. Corn offsets wheat in the global market and when we’re trying to not only feeding our country but other regions of the world needing food, it does affect us locally.

We all have a small part in what we can do for the commodity organizations, but we need leaders to step up and go to those meetings and share our opinions.

You also were among those serving on then-Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker’s bipartisan agricultural transition team.

Halpin: That was another good opportunity I had to get involved and sit on that team with a lot of really good people. You get to share your views on ag and hopefully you make some good points, and it carries through and you make a difference.

What was the path that led you to your position as FSA executive director?

Halpin: Whenever the administrations change, and it doesn’t matter which one it is, there are two positions in Illinois that change with the administration — FSA state executive director and USDA state director of Rural Development, which now is Betsy Dirksen Londrigan.

I was fortunate with my involvement over the years of doing those legislative visits. I really always enjoyed it when we’d go to Springfield or Washington, D.C., to visit with the legislators from both parties and sharing our views.

I guess the recognition that I gained doing those visits put me on the radar and so when the administration changed, I had the opportunity to visit with the Democratic side of the aisle and I was fortunate that I was the one they picked to put my name forth.

What are some of your duties at FSA?

Halpin: One thing that needs to be clear is FSA is an administrative agency. That’s one thing that’s really different from my role in the past working with the commodity groups and Farm Bureau is we worked a lot on policy and trying to develop ideas from the grassroots farmers up.

From this side of things, I am to administrate the programs. That meaning, we get the rules, and I am responsible for making sure the rules are carried out correctly. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the opportunity if something is not working right to voice a concern, but I can’t actively work on policy.

There are always questions and challenges when new policies come out, so whenever those new policies arrive, the phone lines are flooded with calls wanting to know how these policies affect them at the farm gate. We spend a lot of time answering phone calls and questions.

A couple of things that have taken quite a bit of time is hiring folks. One thing COVID did to our agency, similar to other industries or private companies, is a lot of people changed jobs. While working from home they found other opportunities and you can’t fault anyone for doing that. We’ve been trying to backfill positions, and we have positions from the county level all the way from the state office.

There are always new policies, new programs to work on and whatever the flavor of the day is that’s what we attack.

How do you balance your commitments at the state FSA office in Springfield with being part of the family farming operation?

Halpin: With the changes in the workforce, the federal government has found ways to allow some remote work. FSA is a customer-facing agency. So, we have not gone totally remote.

For me, that offers a little bit of flexibility. I am required to be in the Springfield office a few days a week, but I am also allowed to work remote, as well. It’s full time and then some. I can do a few days a week where I can be connected here at home and then at the end of the day, I can get a few things done here on the farm. It’s a bit of a commute for me to Springfield, so I really appreciate that opportunity given to me.

What are some of your favorite aspects of this position?

Halpin: Going back to my roots with the commodity groups, I enjoy getting out and talking to people. I have a little bit of leeway where I can speak to groups, and I have had the opportunity to speak to some leadership groups and commodity groups.

All of the commodity groups have been gracious enough to contact me and offer me time at their annual meetings. It’s been a joy. I like talking to people and dealing with people and it’s been really good to get out, keep in touch and keep in the know of what’s happening around the state.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor