April 29, 2019

Proposed NIFA/ERS relocation—a needed move or too disruptive?

Proposed NIFA/ERS relocation—a needed move or too disruptive?

A congressional hearing on Mar. 27 centered on potential drawbacks of relocating the majority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) staff members outside of the DC Metropolitan Area.

USDA proposed the plan to relocate staff in August 2018. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the move would help the department and its employees save money. The department also claimed that the move would help bring services closer to stakeholders in rural areas.

The plan appeared to be moving forward. USDA has been evaluating 136 sites in 35 states as potential new locations. These include educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, state development agencies, county development agencies, municipalities and for-profit entities that expressed interest in hosting the two branches.

This approach was questioned by several members of the House of Representative during the recent congressional hearing. As Feedstuffs reports, Kristin Boswell, senior advisor to the secretary of agriculture, was called upon to provide evidence for the economic benefits of the move. Boswell said USDA has received many letters of support for the move. She explained that site evaluation is ongoing and includes stakeholder involvement, including current NIFA and ERS staff. In the end, she said, the move will reduce living expenses for employees and costs for taxpayers.

Boswell emphasized that the move would not compromise ERS or NIFA as objective sources of information. She gave the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an example of a government agency functioning well outside Washington.

Some of these points were contradicted later in the hearing by panel members Gale Buchanan and Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientists and undersecretaries under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively; Katherine Smith Evans, ERS administrator under George W. Bush and Obama; and John Lee Jr., former administrator of ERS.

These panelists were unanimously opposed to the move, saying that the USDA has already lost talented employees who wish to stay in the DC area to be close to their spouses who work in other government roles. Evans said the goal of moving closer to rural areas does not make sense because these USDA branches do not supply direct services to producers.

These points were bolstered by a letter signed by 100 organizations stating: “Our shared fundamental belief is that the proposed relocation and reorganization will undermine the quality and breadth of the work these agencies support and perform – work that is vital to informing and supporting U.S. agriculture, food security and rural development.”

As a counter-point more than 30 Republican representatives, including all House Agriculture Committee Republicans, sent a letter to House agriculture appropriators in support of the planned move.