This is one in a regular series exploring how federal agencies are finding and implementing innovative ways to drive efficiency and cut costs.

Once upon a time, farmers drove their horses and carts to the local USDA office to fill out loan paperwork, chat with experts and pick up information. Even 50 years ago, farmers hopped in their pickup trucks for the trip to the USDA’s local farm service agency office.

But now an era of sharp budget-cutting has resulted in the Department of Agriculture’s decision to close 259 domestic offices and labs in counties around the country, including 131 Farm Service Agency offices. That will save $151 million annually — $1.5 billion over the next decade.

“We can no longer do business as we did 50 years ago,” said Matt Herrick, spokesman for USDA.

The USDA is using mobile apps, and other online tools to drive efficiency and cut costs. Farmers riding on their combines in the field can now find agricultural information on their smart phones and even fill out paperwork without a trip to the local farm office.

Exporters of food and other products also can benefit from the new innovations, while saving money for the department. U.S. agricultural exports amounted to $137 billion last year and the nation had a $43 billion trade surplus, largely as a result of shipping food and agricultural products overseas. That sector of the economy is doing really well. Each shipper has to get certifications to allow their products to be accepted in foreign ports. Now, much of that business can be done online, saving time and hassle for the farmer and saving money for the USDA.

With the consolidations come reductions in force as well, but Agriculture is in the unique position of being able to avoid layoffs much of the time. While that old model of a Farm Service office in every county doesn’t work anymore, it makes transferring employees from one office to a nearby office very easy. Employees that didn’t want to retire or leave when their office closed under them, could sometimes transfer to a nearby office.

Nonetheless, since the Department of Agriculture has experienced a $3 billion reduction in discretionary funding since 2010 – a cut of about 12 percent, more than 7,000 employees did choose to leave the agency in the last 17 months, further saving money.

Sometimes the savings ideas are deceptively simple. Prior to this year, USDA had more than 700 separate cell phone plans. Really. The department has now consolidated them into 10 plans, to, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it in an address to the American Farm Bureau meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, earlier this year: “leverage the combined buying power of USDA agencies.” The move will save $2 million annually.

Other budget cutting actions include:

  • Standardizing civil rights complaints investigations
  • Standardizing purchases of cyber security products
  • Centralizing human resources functions
  • And coordinating purchases into a “strategic sourcing program,” according to Vilsack.