Agri-Pulse: Will USDA move agencies out to the heartland?

Sara Wyant
Special to the Farm Forum

From Arkansas to North Dakota, California to New York, and lots of places in between, there’s a lot of interest in hosting USDA employees who might be willing to move out of the nation’s capital region. In fact, 136 different entities from 35 states wrote “expressions of interest” for becoming the new home for USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

But there’s a lot of controversy involved, and opponents still hope that lawmakers might step in and block Secretary Sonny Perdue’s proposal to move these two agencies and their approximately 600 employees out of the Washington, D.C., area.

Former ERS and NIFA officials pushed back against the stated reasons for the proposal, saying – contrary to USDA claims – the agencies do not have unusually high turnover rates, have no problem recruiting talented employees, and are both in the right location for interacting with a wide variety of stakeholders.

“Relocating the ERS out of the Washington area will certainly mean a significant loss of experienced staff, which, in turn, will jeopardize the ERS operations for, potentially, years to come,” said a letter from scientific and advocacy groups in September. Signers included the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the American Dairy Science Association and the Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

However, Perdue is not backing down at this point. He told Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the committee’s top Democrat Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in a letter, “I have no doubt that the long-run viability of both ERS and NIFA will be strengthened even in the face of diminishing budgets by significantly reducing rent and living costs, allowing us to maintain robust NIFA and ERS programs of work focused by being closer to our primary stakeholders we serve.”

Perdue has said the location or locations will be chosen by January, with the relocation planned for summer 2019. Perdue has also said some ERS and NIFA employees will stay in Washington.

In his Sept. 20 letter, Perdue said the department’s “main monetary savings from a relocation will be realized due to lower staff locality pay adjustments and future facility cost savings in areas outside of the National Capital Region as compared to D.C.” Cost of living was emphasized in submissions from Ames and Council Bluffs, Iowa, prepared with help from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which shared the documents with Agri-Pulse: “Payroll budgets for the types of skilled professionals employed by ERS and NIFA . . . would employ about 27 percent more staff in Iowa,” where the cost of living is about 8 percent below the national average, and 62 percent below D.C.’s.

Ames emphasized that it is the home of Iowa State, where more than 5,300 students are enrolled in agriculture and related degree programs and university scientists work closely with their USDA counterparts on crop genetics, plant pests and a host of other issues.

The proposal from Council Bluffs pointed out Omaha, Nebraska’s Eppley Airfield is only a 20-minute drive from the sites the city has proposed as new homes for the agencies. The airport “offers direct flights to more than 28 major cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.”

“Connectivity to the rest of the world is seamless,” Council Bluffs said.

“You can get there from here,” Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. Like Perdue, he stressed the low cost of living, educated workforce, and proximity to stakeholders as clear benefits of moving operations from the D.C. area.

“I think there’s tremendous value in having both ERS and NIFA in the heartland, closer to stakeholders,” he said. “Having (the agencies) positioned in a state like Iowa makes perfect sense.”

Naig also said a move to the nation’s breadbasket “might be a good start” in moving other agencies out of D.C. “I don’t think we should be afraid of taking this type of step,” he said.

The Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Authority submitted a proposal but did not make it public. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., however, issued a press release touting the benefits of the two-city metro area.

“Fargo is a vibrant community with a world-class agriculture research and land-grant institution (North Dakota State), thriving tech industry and a low cost of living,” Hoeven said. “We will continue to move this effort forward with USDA’s officials and look forward to their review of the proposal.”