GOVERNMENT FOR THE PEOPLE: PROFILES ON THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Farm Loan and Conservation Services

Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area, Department of Agriculture


Executive Summary

Recognizing the vital role agricultural producers’ play in feeding people across the country, USDA is taking steps to understand and improve how farmers and ranchers experience its services. In 2018, the department launched a new mission area called Farm Production and Conservation—bringing together three USDA agencies that assist farmers, ranchers and other stewards of private agricultural lands. The FPAC Business Center, a centralized operations agency within the new mission area, streamlines systems, policies, procedures and practices to deliver programs to customers effectively and efficiently.

According to research conducted by the FPAC mission area, customers value personalized interactions with highly trained field office representatives—often farmers themselves—who tailor services to meet producers’ specific needs.

Still, many customers need a more convenient way to access farm loan and conservation services digitally, such as through self-service capabilities offered on Farmers.gov. Our analysis found the website to be well-designed, with intuitive tools and digestible content that enable customers to conduct a range of business activities such as viewing loan information, requesting conservation support or applying for program benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption within FPAC of digital platforms, enabling USDA field offices to focus on more complex customer interactions.

To further improve the customer experience with farm loan and conservation services, agricultural producers would like the organization to streamline the application and reporting processes to avoid redundancy. Customers would also like faster decision-making and reduced processing times for loans and other program applications—an issue the mission area has started to make progress on.


Data at a Glance

More than 32,000 farm loans delivered in fiscal 2019 

More than 500,000 farmers have received conservation services

More than 800,000 visits to 
Farmers.gov in fiscal 2019


“As a 5th generation farmer who’s been engaged with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for 20 years, I know how important it is to walk into a field office and be welcomed by someone who is happy to assist you, and willing to go out into the field and discuss your concerns. That’s why customer experience is a top priority for me.”

Matthew Lohr
Former chief of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service

 “Nearly everything we do from a customer experience perspective is about finding out how producers feel about and use our insurance policies.”

Martin Barbre
Administrator of the Risk Management Agency
Service Overview

Primary Customers

Agricultural producers, including farmers, ranchers, foresters, specialty growers, tribes and tribal governments. Customers range in age, farming experience and the type of farm they operate.

Key services related to farm loan and conservation services (data for fiscal 2019)

The Farm Production and Conservation mission area delivers services through three agencies: 

  • Farm Service Agency, which provides direct farm loans up to $600,000 and guaranteed loans up to $1.75 million.1 
    • 32,343 loans distributed, totaling $5.7 billion in direct and guaranteed farm loans.
      • Direct and guaranteed loan assistance to “beginning farmers” totaled $2.7 billion.

  • Natural Resources Conservation Service, which provides consultations and financial assistance.  
    • Consultation services offered by local service centers to help producers with their natural resource management and conservation practices, ranging from natural resources assessments to expertise and advice on how to protect water and air quality.
      • More than 500,000 customers served, helping to boost agricultural productivity.2  
      • 98,090 conservation plans developed for producers to implement on more than 31 million acres. 
    • Financial assistance programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that help producers protect natural resources and the environment.
      • 56,887 contracts for financial assistance programs, totaling $1.7 billion in payments to producers.
      • 140,000 contracts awarded to help agricultural producers implement conservation practices on more than 92 million acres of land.  

  • Risk Management Agency, which mitigates farming risks by developing policies on crop insurance and regulating insurance that private entities offer to agricultural producers.
    • Conducted more than 300 listening sessions with customers in the past two years to elicit feedback to inform new policies. 

FPAC delivers online services through Farmers.gov and the Conservation Client Gateway, both of which customers use to manage individual accounts, submit signed documents and access services.


People Interact With USDA By

(All data for fiscal year 2019)

VISITING ONLINE

800,000+ 

visits to Farmers.gov3


(227,117 in fiscal 2018)

CALLING OR VISITING A LOCAL SERVICE CENTER

2,450+ 

service centers across the country


Customer Experience Insights

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Because farmers who seek help from USDA have different needs and situations, field staff members are trained to provide tailored services and build personal relationships. They recognize that some producers may want frequent and in-depth support, while others only want to contact the agency when applying for a loan. Many USDA employees have farming backgrounds, which may help create a strong sense of empathy and trust with customers.

 

 

Walk a Mile

A state conservationist working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho used an undercover boss approach to visit a service center. By posing as a customer, he was able to gauge staff members' level of subject matter knowledge and how they greeted producers. He also experienced the process of applying for a service as a customer would, noting that field employees seemed to be well-trained, knowledgeable and friendly. However, he noted room for improvement around redundancy of the forms that need to be completed.

Farmers.gov is USDA’s central website for providing farmers, ranchers and producers with information and toolsand a critical part of the agency’s customer service strategy. Selected pages on the site earned an A for their well-organized layout, effectively designed features and clear content, according to our analysis 

Staff members use customer research and input from employees and producers to further refine the website, identifying new features and improvements.

Website Experience:
How easy is it to navigate and understand online information? 

Reviewers looked at the pages from the perspective of people seeking to answer two questions:

USDA Grade

A


Strengths

  • Well-designed pages optimized for a good user experience across all levels of technological proficiency. 
  • Range of design elements that are helpful for users – for example, content that can be expanded or collapsed.  
  • Definitions of terms and “advanced organizer” at the beginning of pages that summarizes content so users can find information they need.  
  • Text presented in ways that make it easy to find answers quickly.  
  • Content without jargon or complex words, making it easy to understand, even for users outside of agriculture.


Standout feature: The Farm Loan Discovery Tool

The easy-to-use tool for identifying loan options walks the customer through a sequence of steps in a clear and structured way. After going through the Farm Loan Discovery Tool’s well-designed questions and responses, users are presented with clear results based on their needs.  

Pages start with an advanced organizer of content to guide the user (https://www.farmers.gov/fund)
The results page of the Farm Loan Discovery Tool directs the user to the loan application, additional resources and nearest USDA Service Center. (https://www.farmers.gov/fund/farm-loan-discovery-tool)

Average Direct Loan Processing Time4
2017 2018 2019
Number of days 31 30 32

In 2019, direct farm loans took 32 days to process, on average, while applications for conservation programs that require in-depth eligibility reviews usually took about a year. Customers would like faster decisions to speed up loan processing times, according to agency staff members.     

To streamline conservation services, a Natural Resources Conservation Service team is rolling out a remote-sensing tool that assesses whether a farmer’s land is susceptible to erosion and therefore would require the farmer to develop a conservation plan. This process, which was previously done manually, examines the Earth’s surface and automatically generates forms, maps and reports—saving two-and-a-half hours per land determination and translating to 53 years of staff work saved annually.5


“Developing new technologies doesn’t mean we ignore the opportunity to go out into the field with a customer. In fact, it provides a great opportunity to educate our customers and build trusting relationships with them by sharing how we arrived at the decision of the determination.”
— Curtis Elke, State Conservationist, NRCS Idaho

When applying for more than one program or service, producers are often required to provide some of the same information numerous times for each agency, leading to redundant paper forms. To address this, FPAC started providing customers with digital options, so they could complete common business transactions online, such as applications for multiple FSA and NRCS programs.


“Agriculture is a very high-tech industry, with some farmers using autonomous and satellite-guided tractors. Customers expect to be able to use virtual and digital platforms.”
—Richard Fordyce, administrator of the Farm Service Agency

For example, customers can start program applications on new web portals such as Farmers.gov. Up until recently, however, the Farm Service Agency required original signatures on forms during the farm loan closing process in some local or state jurisdictions, forcing many customers to drive long distances to service centers just to sign and submit forms. The agency was able to largely address this issue during the pandemic by providing customers online resources to access, sign and share documents.

Leadership from all three agencies acknowledged there was still room for improvement in meeting customer demands for better information technology.

More about Farmers.gov 

Customers can log in and take actions related to their business with Farm Production and Conservation, such as checking the payment date or outstanding balance of a Farm Service Agency loan or e-signing documents related to their contracts with Natural Resources Conservation Service. On the back end, federal employees in county offices can log in and complete actions to serve customers, including completing applications and providing receipts for the services provided. The web team rolls out new online tools every few months to address common customer needs.

  • More than 4.6 million customer interactions as of the summer of 2020.

Connecting on Social Media

The USDA social media team uses Facebook and Twitter to educate and engage customers about topics ranging from the latest research on sustainable water irrigation practices to events and webinars on the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The team also makes announcements on financial and technical assistance opportunities, program application and enrollment deadlines, and new products and services, such as the Farm Loan Discovery Tool, which helps customers understand which loan is right for them. USDA also shares personal stories about customers they serve on these accounts.  

As of September 2020, USDA’s social media presence included: 


Twitter

(@USDA)

Followers: 666,500 



Total tweets: 19,500


Facebook

(@USDA)

Followers: 441,300



Total likes: 420,000


Instagram

(@USDAgov)

Followers: 74,300



Total posts: 704


YouTube

(USDA)

Subscribers: 17,400



Total views: 3 million

Social media practices

Posts almost daily?
No



Responds to customers?
No



Includes multimedia content?
Yes

For background information on these metrics and our full methodology click here.

Adjusting Services During the Coronavirus Pandemic

With plummeting prices for crops and livestock, labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and concerns about the safety of farm workers, the agricultural community took a hard hit from the coronavirus pandemic.3 To support producers, USDA launched several new programs, including the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to producers who lost 5% or more of their crops due to disruptions brought about by the virus.4 

Adjusting services during the pandemic required a culture shift for USDA, which largely relies on a highly personalized, face-to-face service delivery model. One agency leader estimated that about 90% of the staff had never teleworked before. To maintain services, the agency had to adjust its traditional in-person approach when most staff could no longer go to an office, and it had to find new ways to build trusted relationships and deliver timely, convenient services.  
 
With field offices closed to the public and operated by fewer staff members, employees quickly pivoted to assisting customers by phone or on an appointment-only basis. Over the course of several months, the agency continued to serve customers in need. They reduced the number of forms required for coronavirus-related relief programs and adopted new digital tools for secure online file sharing, electronic signatures on select forms and applications and videoconferencing, which helped facilitate farm loan application and closing processes.  

Indicators that the Customer Experience is a High Priority 

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Commitment to Customer Experience

The Agency:

Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.


Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.


Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization.


Shares meaningful customer feedback data with the public.

Customer Service Basics 

For the most common services provided, customers can: 

Complete frequently used transactions online.


Easily find information to call an appropriate USDA representative.


Schedule in-person appointments.


Obtain status updates.


Find standardized and consistent information and guidance across channels.

Customer Feedback 

The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions:   

Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments. 


Of a customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal.


Of the overall service the organization provides.


Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analysis of social media comments or direct observation.


Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels.

More details about our methodology

This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.