PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — A proposal to consolidate local farm offices, hastily scrapped last year amid outrage from farmers and Congress, is being pushed again as an effort to modernize a Depression-era network.

This time, officials are promising to be much less aggressive — even as they point out that the offices have too few trained employees and some computers so old they can't connect to the Internet.

"I sincerely believe we can restructure and do a better job," Teresa Lasseter, the new Farm Service Agency administrator, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

No changes will happen without public hearings and talks with Congress, she said, and state officials will have significant control over where cuts are made.

The local office is essential to a farmer's bottom line. Producers must visit there to sign up for an array of government payments and loans.

More than 2,300 counties — virtually every rural county in the nation — have a Farm Service Agency Office. But that is no guarantee it will be open on a given day, or that a farmer will find answers in a single visit.

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A business wouldn't operate that way, said Keith Widdowson, who runs the Somerset and Worcester county offices in Maryland. The offices on the Eastern Shore are 18 miles apart with two employees each.

If one staffer leaves, the other must juggle farmers lined up at the counter and tend the phones alone — and be an expert on dozens of different programs.

"It's not an efficient way to run the office," Widdowson said. "It worked years ago, when we had enough staff, but not anymore."

Merging might mean a longer drive for some farmers, but the result would be better, faster service, he said.

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