USDA agencies: Stay or move?

Agweek Editorial Board
Forum News Service

Some things in agriculture are obvious: the importance of timely rains and the value of neighbors who keep their fences in good working order, to name just two.

Some things in ag are more complicated. These issues and subjects generate differing viewpoints that both offer legitimate arguments and deserve careful consideration.

A good example is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to relocate two of its agencies from their historic homes in Washington, D.C., to new locations in Kansas City.

In August 2018, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture would move from Washington to new, undetermined locations around the country. The USDA received 136 applications from across the country, including sites in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. The Upper Midwest sites were eliminated during the long selection process that eventually settled on the Kansas City area.

ERS provides economic research on, and analysis of, emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment and rural America, as well as global trade and food safety.

The NIFA promotes agriculture-related sciences.

An estimated 500 to 600 ERS and NIFA positions apparently would be moved to the Kansas City are under the relocation plan, which still must be approved by Congress.

In announcing that Kansas City would be the new home, Perdue said the move would bring the research agencies closer to major farming regions, improve customer service and save taxpayer dollars — about $20 million per year over 15 years.

We think pretty highly of Perdue. He’s smart, experienced and clearly understands and supports agriculture.

But moving the agencies wasn’t Perdue’s decision. His boss, President Donald Trump, wanted the relocation, and Perdue has dutifully carried out the order.

Because it came from Trump, the relocation has drawn attention from people who normally pay little, if any, attention to ag. Some of these people automatically support the plan became the idea came from Trump. Others automatically oppose it became it came from Trump.

Our only interest is what’s best for American agriculture. And it’s impossible to overstate the importance of ag research. American ag needs high-quality research, both private- and public-sector, and most of what comes from the Economic Research Service is unique — conducted by scientists and economists with years, even decades of hard-earned experience.

Will the quality of ag research be enhanced, or at least maintained, by the proposed relocation?

We’ve already noted Perdue’s endorsement of the relocation and why he says he supports it. Many knowledgeable, well-intentioned people agree with him.

But there’s another side to the issue. By all accounts, hundreds of ERS and NIFA employees now in Washington don’t want to move. Their families, homes, friends, places of worship and entertainment — the core of their nonprofessional lives — are in the D.C. area. They’ll quit their current jobs rather than move to Kansas City.

Yes, of course, they’re government employees. They’re not owed jobs at the place of their choosing. But that’s not the point: The real issue is that replacing their experience will take time: many of their replacements, though talented, won’t have the same expertise — and that will take years to build up.

So should the agencies stay or go?

It’s a tough call. On balance, though, we think keeping them in Washington is best for U.S. agriculture at this time. We have enough upheaval to address in agriculture right now without losing valuable researchers.

And whatever happens, we urge American agriculture never to lose of the value of research. To survive and thrive, we need all we can get.