WASHINGTON, D.C. — The first concrete steps toward consolidation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fresh and processed divisions are less than a year away.

“We will certainly be in a position within six to nine months to start that process,” said Bob Keeney, deputy administrator for fruit and vegetable programs for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. Keeney sad the agency must secure internal approvals on the plan before proceeding.

The two branches, which have a combined budget of $60 million, notified employees about the merger in May.

USDA consolidation includes fresh produce branchNo immediate staff cutbacks are planned. Keeney said attrition and retirement should shrink the size of the Inspection Division. Keeney said earlier the total staff of the Fresh Products Branch is about 150, and the Processed Products Branch has about 700.

Fees paid by the industry covers expenses at both branches, he said.

The consolidation will eventually result in less administrative costs and reduce training expenses.

The Fresh Products Branch performs good agricultural practices audits, the number of which has grown significantly in recent years, Keeney said.

If the agency proceeds with the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, that would increase the demand for USDA GAP audits performed by state employees, he said.

Keeney said the USDA has received more than 1,100 comments on the proposed national agreement. The deadline for comments is July 28.