May 27, 2019

USDA narrows ERS/NIFA relocation site list

USDA narrows ERS/NIFA relocation site list—as ERS employees move to unionize

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has released a top-five list of possible sites for the relocation of the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA).

These two branches of the USDA are currently based in the Washington DC area. The department says relocating their offices will bring experts closer to stakeholders in rural areas, help retain workers by lowering their cost of living, and ultimately save taxpayer money. The new list is based on the 136 sites submitted by universities, non-profit organizations and other groups for consideration.

The sites on the narrow list include: multiple locations in Indiana, the Greater Kansas City Region and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region as the top-three options, with the St. Louis, MO, region and Madison, WI, as alternates.

“This short list of locations took into consideration critical factors required to uphold the important missions of ERS and NIFA. We also considered factors important to our employees, such as quality of life,” Secretary Perdue said in a press release.

Despite this progress in choosing a new site, some are still opposed to the relocation. Ron Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association told Feedstuffs, “USDA has neither made a compelling case for such an upheaval nor listened to their own stakeholders, experts and leaders.” He added that the USDA should have also given more weight to its partnerships with land-grant universities.

“Certainly, if NIFA were to be moved, choosing a location close to a research university with programs in agriculture and other pertinent areas is key for science given the proximity to other scientists,” added Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in a May 3 letter to Secretary Perdue.

Members of Congress have also called for more evidence of the economic benefits of the move.

The biggest opponents of the move, however, appear to be ERS employees. On May 9, employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing. These employees would be joining the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which already represents 100,000 USDA employees. The vote is direct reaction the relocation planning. Through AFGE, ERS employees would be able to negotiate with USDA as a collective bargaining unit and bring up the terms of the relocation. NIFA employees are scheduled to vote on unionizing in June.

Adding to the complicated situation is the fact that the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has denied NIFA a new lease on their current site in southwest Washington D.C. Their current lease will end January 2020.