WASHINGTON – Federal lawmakers continued to press for more data regarding the feasibility of moving the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) agencies of the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) outside the Washington, D.C., area.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a plan in August of 2018 to align the ERS with the Office of the Chief Economist and relocate ERS and NIFA employees outside the National Capital Region.
“It’s been our goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient, and customer-focused department in the entire federal government,” Perdue said. “In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers and for the taxpayers of the United States. In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services.”
But critics say the plan lacks transparency and benefits of relocating the agencies aren’t clear. At a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing held June 5, subcommittee chair Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) said Perdue’s plan was “misconstrued.”
“As the delegate for the Virgin Islands, I represent the Univ. of the Virgin Islands, a land grant university, and it has skin in the game, as do the territory’s small-scale producers who benefit from fully staffed agencies,” Plaskett said in opening remarks. “Not only were stakeholders entirely cut out of this process, they were blindsided by the announcement from USDA last August.
“ERS and NIFA are already understaffed well below their appropriated staffing levels. Instead of pushing forward a proposal that will only exacerbate staff losses, USDA should be working to adequately staff these agencies. The agency is still catching up from a 35-day shutdown. Further reducing staff only weakens the agencies’ ability to operate or respond to future events. Staff losses directly translate into a loss of critical institutional knowledge and decreased capacity to implement the very programs we just authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill.”
But Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.), pushed back saying one of the main drivers behind Perdue’s plan is to attract talent.
“According to US News and World Report, four of the top five richest counties in the United States are located in the Washington D.C. suburbs,” Dunn said. “Let’s face it: It’s expensive to live and raise a family in this area, and USDA cited that as a fact as one of their biggest reasons why it’s difficult to attract top talent, and why the department struggles to fill its positions.”
Dunn also noted that Perdue has broad support to move forward with the relocation.
“The secretary has laid out a measured and deliberate plan for the relocation and has taken steps to help the affected employees and I am confident of his execution,” he added.
In fact, USDA said “No ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated. Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location. For those who are interested, USDA is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both voluntary early retirement authority and voluntary separation incentive payments.”
Witnesses providing testimony during the hearing, however, advocated for keeping the agencies in the National Capital Region.
Elizabeth Brownlee, owner-operator of Nightfall Farm, a diversified livestock operation in Crothersville, Indiana, said, “I’m concerned the relocating ERS and NIFA may negatively impact farmers and ranchers. Relocating ERS and NIFA will make it more challenging for farm groups to collaborate with these agencies, and it may jeopardize your ability to craft evidence-based effective policy for farmers like me.”
“The work that these agencies do is critical to the next generation of farmers and ranchers,” she said. “We face serious obstacles to launching and growing our farm businesses,” and moving ERS and NIFA outside Washington will make it more difficult for these agencies to respond to the challenges facing young farmers like her.
Brownlee runs Nightfall Farm with her husband Nate. They run the business on her family’s 250-acre farm, and they have spent six seasons raising pastured livestock.
“New farmers like me, we’re urgently needed,” Brownlee added. “The average farmer is 59, as you probably know, and farmers over 65 actually outnumber farmers under 35 by six-to-one. That’s a problem for our country. But young farmers can’t find and afford farmland. Student debt is crippling our ability to capitalize our businesses, and increasingly severe weather is making it harder to farm.”
She noted that the farm organizations she works with can’t suddenly open new offices in Kansas City and Indiana. “That’s inefficient and financially wasteful,” she said.
“I don’t need NIFA and ERS in my community,” Brownlee said. “I do need NIFA and ERS working hard for me in Washington D.C. and serving policy makers like you. This work is best done in our nation’s capital.”
William Tracy, Ph.D., professor of agronomy at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed concern that relocating NIFA and ERS would reduce communication among the agencies that work together on agricultural research, funding and policy.
“I’ve received grants from the National Science Foundation as well as NIFA, and many of my agricultural colleagues receive grants from the National Institutes of Health, EPA, DOE and other agencies,” he said. “All of these agencies work together on agriculture. Having the key partner of the land grants move away from these other groups is really going to reduce communication.”
And Jack Payne, Ph.D., senior vice president, agriculture and natural resources at the Univ. of Florida-Gainesville, said “Farmers are among the ultimate beneficiaries of NIFA-funded science. USDA has an efficient network of land grant university extension agents and research stations, over 500 of them, to provide information to those farmers in their communities across the country. It’s a proven model that can instantaneously disperse vital scientific discoveries and new methods to farmers who can use it. To say ERS and NIFA need to be geographically closer farmers is to miss how effective this network is in delivering innovation to farmers nationwide.”