The Agriculture Department unveiled new features on farmers.gov today that aim to help customers better manage their farm loans and more easily navigate the application process for H-2A visas, which enable employers to bring in foreign workers for seasonal and temporary labor.
“In my travels across the country, I have consistently heard people express a desire for greater use of technology in the way we deliver programs at USDA,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “As we adopt new technology, we are introducing simple yet innovative approaches to support our farmers, ranchers, producers, and foresters as they support the nation every day.”
The interactive one-stop site for America’s agriculture producers launched in February last year as one of the original public-facing products created by the government’s IT modernization Centers of Excellence program. In June 2018, the Technology Modernization Fund Board awarded USDA $10 million to build a customer experience portal on the site.
Through a new “My Financial Information” feature launched today, customers can now log in to the self-service site on a computer, tablet or phone to securely view insights around loan information, history and payments. The function also includes account alerts that will give borrowers important notifications regarding their loans.
Though the function is only currently available to producers doing business as individuals, the department is planning to initiate portal access for entities such as LLCs or Trusts in the future.
Kaveh Sadeghzadeh, the department’s acting deputy director of communications told Nextgov the department is working directly with farmers to maximize the site’s potential to meet all their needs. Sadeghzadeh said the “My Financial Information” feature was one item that both producers and staff recommended as a “critical need.”
“From day one, farmers.gov has been built through an iterative process to deliver the greatest immediate value to America’s agricultural producers, based on real feedback from farmers and ranchers,” Sadeghzadeh said. “We have reached out to farmers to talk about the tools and services they need online and how those features can be best delivered.”
Agriculture also rolled out the Phase I release of new tools that will aid farmers in more seamlessly navigating the H-2A visa process for the department’s temporary agricultural workers program. The site now includes a page dedicated to educating users on the H-2A application paths and extension processes, as well as an interactive checklist tool to track application requirements, fees, forms, and a timeline built to support farmers’ hiring needs.
As of now, Labor Department, State Department, Citizenship and Immigration Services and state workforce agencies each independently manage elements of the H-2A program, which involves separate websites and complex business applications. Going forward, Agriculture is collaborating with Labor to implement farmers.gov H-2A visa Phase II, which will create a streamlined visa application form, regulations and digital application process that moves farmers seamlessly between the website, portal and to Labor’s IT systems.
The site and its newest features mark an onset of Agriculture’s modernization efforts. The department will continue to launch new functions on a rolling basis as the department works to uphold customer service as what Purdue called its “top priority.”
“It’s my goal to make USDA the most effective, most efficient, most customer-focused department in the entire federal government, and farmers.gov is a big step in that direction,” he said.
Sadeghzadeh also noted the department has noticed an increase in traffic on farmers.gov since its launch and said USDA officials are confident the site will continue to grow into a strong digital resource made for farmers, by farmers.
“Farmers are absolutely engaging with the site, and we’re hoping to increase our reach as more and more people learn about the services we now offer online,” Sadeghzadeh said.