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Democrats, NFU blast ERS, NIFA relocation plans

taspencer/ThinkstockPhotos USDA Building view from street
58% of ERS employees and 67% of NIFA employees have rejected relocation to Kansas City

National Farmers Union is calling USDA’s relocation of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside the nation’s capital “misguided” and “detrimental to family farmers and ranchers and rural communities” on the grounds that it will diminish the influence and hinder the operations of both agencies.

“Any way you look at it, the relocation of NIFA and ERS is a no-win situation,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “Most obviously, it’s an extreme inconvenience for researchers within the agencies, most of whom will either have to uproot their entire lives or be out of a job. Since the vast majority are expected to choose the latter, both agencies could lose significant expertise and operational capacity, at least in the short term. This is a problem for both legislators, who use objective and robust science to develop effective policies, as well as the land grant universities and other entities who depend on NIFA grants to fund research projects and extension activities.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced June 13 that he is moving the agencies to Kansas City. The agencies do research and provide reports to Congress and the public. Perdue says the move will save $20 million a year and bring the agencies closer to customers.

“The only apparent upside of this whole ordeal is the marginal monetary savings – and the evidence to support such savings is tenuous at best,” Johnson said. “By some estimates, the move could actually cost taxpayers more money, not less.”

The Agricultural and Applied Economics Association is one of those providing an estimate that disagrees with Perdue’s assertion that the move will save money. The association says the move will cost taxpayers $37 million to $128 million. USDA’s analysis had two errors, AAEA says. No. 1, USDA overstated the cost of keeping the agencies in the National Capital Region and second, USDA failed to take into account the value of research and data lost through resignations and retirements.

The Federal News Network reports that 58% of Economic Research Service employees have declined relocation and 67% of National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees have rejected relocation. About 76 ERS positions and 21 NIFA positions will remain in the Washington, D.C. area. USDA employees had until July 15 to inform USDA of their decision on relocation. Employees who declined relocation have been getting removal letters, a union spokesman said.

And just where they’re going remains up in the air, according to a Politico exclusive. The landlord for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture has complained that the relocation of ERS and NIFA wasn’t fully competitive, which has delayed the search for a long-term lease in Kansas City by a month. Until permanent office space is found, USDA intends to house employees in a temporary space in the Kansas City metro area.

This isn’t going over well with Democrats on Capitol Hill.

In remarks prepared for delivery at a July 18 agricultural research hearing, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, blasted the move.

“The administration’s haphazard decision to relocate two critically important research institutions – the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture – will affect real people who rely on USDA services and hamper its capacity to support farmers, families, and rural communities for years to come,” Stabenow said. “And for what? It is still unclear to me what problem the USDA is trying to solve with this move. We do know what problems it is creating.”

Employees view going to Kansas City as a last resort and are actively seeking other jobs, The Hill reported. New Jersey Democrat Bob Casey Jr. said the agency may be losing thousands of years of expertise on complex issues as 250 people plan to leave the agency.

“It’s clear to me that this is not a relocation,” Stabenow said. “It’s a demolition. It’s a thinly-veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees and bypass the intent of Congress.”

Ag committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, didn’t share the Democrats’ concern. In his prepared remarks, he asked for an update on the status of the relocation and touted the history of agricultural research in his home state.

“The relocation of ERS and NIFA to this region would allow these agencies to access the many existing resources and benefits of the region,” Roberts said.

Scott Hutchins, USDA’s deputy under secretary for research, education and economics, defended the move, saying the move allows the agency to grow and be more sustainable.

What others are saying.

The Economic Research Service provides information on food price and farm forecasts. It collects information that helps inform policy decisions. The move will take employees away from the USDA and the congressional staffers who used to seek their input on program changes or proposals. A USDA spokesperson said 72 ERS employees will move to Kansas City, 76 will remain in the DC area and 99 quit. – Pacific Standard

Perdue’s budget requests signal his true intent. The White House budget for 2020 requested $61 million, including $15.5 million in relocation costs, for the ERS. That’s $41.5 million less than appropriated in 2019. In 2019, the agency had funding for 319 employees. Its 2020 budget request funds just 160 — a reduction of 159 people. – Kansas City Star

The number of employees declining to relocate appears to validate months of warnings that relocation will cause a brain drain at the ERS. – Politico.

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