Randi Johnson raised the picture of her dead son’s football team.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked, tucking it back inside a growing pile of cardboard boxes in her torn-apart living room. “And these are videos of his mission trip to Mexico. I don’t have anything to play them on, but I can’t throw them away.”
She feels the same about her son’s baseball caps. His old stuffed animals. Her dead wife’s high school yearbooks. She is running out of time to decide.
Next month, Johnson, a 28-year-veteran of the U.S. Agriculture Department who most recently led its program on climate change, will quit her job and move away from the home she can no longer afford. She packs one box a night, more on weekends, in preparation for an upheaval she neither wanted nor expected.
The USDA will partially relocate to Kansas City at the end of September, an abrupt decision announced in June that shocked the federal workforce and meant immediate disruption for hundreds.
The relocation to Missouri, which the USDA estimates will save $300 million over 15 years, affects about 550 people at the Economic Research Service, an influential federal statistical agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which oversees a $1.7 billion portfolio of scientific grants.
In the months since the announcement, two-thirds of USDA employees decided to leave their jobs rather than move, according to data released by the department in July. Academics have lamented the cost to science, saying the talent loss will devastate the agencies.
Beyond the statistics, the move also is devastating families and forcing employees at all stages of life into wrenching decisions. Among those leaving the agency is Rachel Melnick, a married mother of two who just had a second child — and purchased a “forever home” in Virginia — when she learned her job was moving to Kansas City. And Jonathan McFadden, a researcher in his early 30s who was falling for his work, the District and a new girlfriend.
Johnson did not want to quit her job. In addition to spearheading a climate change research program, she spent her days helping forest scientists find funding.
A tree lover since childhood, when she saw how much her father enjoyed the forest, Johnson has a PhD in forest genetics and a master’s degree in forest soils. She came to the federal government after several years performing field research in Brazil and New Zealand. Though she sometimes missed being among the trees, she found supporting others’ research rewarding.
“I believed in their work,” she said. “And in the tree breeding world, we all know each other. It’s so small that it’s always friends, not colleagues.”
But Kansas City was never an option. It meant moving far from her daughter, who recently gave birth to Johnson’s first grandchild. And she worried the Midwest might be less-than-welcoming to a 62-year-old transgender woman.
Johnson physically transitioned from male to female about three years ago, the latest challenge in what has been the most difficult decade of her life — during which Johnson joined “three clubs I don’t wish upon anyone: lost a spouse, lost a child and I’m trans.”
Her wife, Jane, died of breast cancer 11 years ago. A few years later, Johnson’s son Brett fatally overdosed on opioids, an addiction he picked up at his mother’s bedside. Brett began sneaking Jane’s opiates — from one of the pill bottles lined up on her dresser “like a terra-cotta army,” Johnson remembered — as a way to manage his overwhelming grief. He “always was a mother’s boy,” Johnson said.
Two things saw Johnson through: her neighborhood and her church. When Jane died, residents of Falls Church swarmed to help, though the Johnsons had moved in just two months before. Neighbors Johnson barely knew stopped and offered her hugs on the street.
Five years later, she was out to dinner at a restaurant in Dupont Circle when her daughter called to say Brett had overdosed. By the time Johnson made it home, “half the neighborhood was inside” her house, waiting.
When she transitioned in 2016, letting loose a lifelong secret, Johnson’s closest friends — neighbors Teresa, Kristen and Yasmin — “did not miss a beat,” she said. They took her clothes shopping. They offered daily fashion feedback as Johnson relearned how to dress for work.
Most important, they kept sharing Friday nights. It happens pretty much the same way every weekend, Johnson said: One of the four texts the group chat asking, “Who’s got wine?” Another remembers they have leftover food. Inevitably, the friends end up sitting on someone’s deck, sipping and gossiping late into the evening.
Johnson wants to stay.
But, after going zero-for-six on job applications in the D.C. area and consulting with a financial adviser, she’s crating — or tossing — the pieces of her life and moving to Bethany Beach. Retiring early (she’d hoped to quit with optimum benefits at 66) reduced her retirement income by about $18,000 per year. In Delaware, Johnson can afford the lifestyle, albeit on a tight budget.
There are advantages. She’ll be within driving distance of her daughter. She’s always wanted to live near the ocean.
Her composure frays when she thinks about Fridays.
“I’m going into retirement alone,” Johnson said. “So it’s just the thought of sitting in that house alone, at night . . .” she trailed off.
“I don’t do alone well.”
'Do I want to move with what's left?'
Rachel Melnick’s husband always supported her career, so she wasn’t surprised when he said he was willing to move to Kansas City.
For a while, she entertained the idea. After all, Melnick, 38, loved her work at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture: allocating money for research projects meant to help farmers adapt to climate change and become more efficient and more profitable.
She’d gone to the USDA straight out of graduate school nine years ago. Melnick turned down “a great job” in the agricultural industry around the same time because she thought government work would be more stable, she said.
At the NIFA, she spent most of her time on the phone talking to researchers, farmers and small businesses with ideas for new farming techniques or products. Occasionally, she took road trips around the country to meet people face-to-face, one of her favorite parts of the job.
“It’s so great to see small business get an award for making something that’s really going to help farmers or rural communities,” Melnick said.
Her love affair with farmers and plants began during her childhood in Lancaster County, Pa. Though Melnick’s parents did not farm, she grew up driving through farmland — there was a dairy farm at one end of her neighborhood — and visiting farmers markets every Tuesday. She did not know it was possible to buy corn-on-the-cob from a supermarket until she was 12.
Melnick’s husband, an engineer who works in the District, is also from rural Pennsylvania, something the couple bonded over. It’s why they bought a home 30 miles from Washington, out in a wooded area of Virginia; they wanted to raise their children in a bucolic setting. Somewhere their children could run outside and pick mushrooms or scare away deer.
About a month after closing the deal on the house, Melnick ran outside with a yell to her brand-new backyard, where her husband was inspecting a fence.
It was August 2018, her first day back from the hospital. She’d pulled out her phone to send a picture of her newborn son, Trevin, to USDA co-workers.
Instead, she saw the email.
“It was very frank: You will move out of this area,” Melnick said. “I was blindsided.”
Melnick and her colleagues had known for a while that the NIFA needed to leave its headquarters in Southwest Washington; the agency’s building lease expires in December. But the expectation internally was that the agency would switch to another site in the District.
The email did not say where the NIFA would be moving, just that Melnick should be ready to relocate far from the D.C. area in about a year. The federal government did not announce Kansas City as the USDA’s final destination until 11 months later, following a competitive bidding process — and a long period of uncertainty for Melnick.
She mulled the decision mostly during unpaid furlough in December and January, when the federal government underwent the longest shutdown in its history. As she pondered, she unpacked and hung pictures in her new home. Her father drove from Pennsylvania to help, playing for hours with his grandchildren. Kansas City, Melnick knew, is too far for her parents to drive.
“Morale at the agency was down, and people had already left, and [I was] thinking, ‘Do I want to move with what’s left?’ ” she said. “And we want our kids to see their grandparents. So that was the choice we made.”
She applied to roughly 50 jobs in the D.C. region, earning interviews from about six and winning one (“it’s a horrible market for a PhD right now,” she said). At her new position, which she started a few weeks ago, Melnick seeks funding for agricultural research instead of granting it.
She knows she’s been spared the agony many of her colleagues are facing. Before she left the NIFA, she tried her best to help — especially older co-workers, many of whom hadn’t applied for a new job in over two decades, didn’t know how to navigate Indeed or LinkedIn, and, like everyone at the agency, were operating under a tight deadline.
“People think we have something against Kansas City, and that’s not true,” Melnick said. “It was the way this move was done . . . everything’s been so uncertain. Everything seems so seat-of-their-pants.”
The August email is emblematic, she said. “Even if they had come in person and told us . . . I would have had a lot more respect.”
'I'm trying to manage'
Jonathan McFadden always planned to enter academia. After four years in the District, he was starting to reconsider.
McFadden, 33, accepted a position at the Economic Research Service right after earning a PhD in economics from Iowa State University. He viewed the federal government as a placeholder, tiding him over until he found a university job. Still, he plunged into his research, asking questions such as, how can farmers best respond to climate change? How are farmers using genetically engineered crops?
He grew so engrossed that he started coming into the office on weekends. McFadden was “delighted” with his colleagues: so smart, so dedicated, so approachable.
“There’s tremendous value in being able to stop by someone’s cubicle and just say, ‘Look at this graph, can you see this data point? What are your thoughts?’ ” McFadden said. “It was a really great time in my life.”
It was fulfilling personally, too. McFadden, who grew up in rural Oklahoma, had felt apprehensive about moving to Washington: “a large city on the coast” distant from the small-town life he knew. After a few false starts, he was swiftly enchanted.
An avid runner training for a marathon, McFadden joined jogging groups and found favorite routes: across the Mall, up to Mount Vernon, along the Capital Crescent Trail. The son of a music professor reveled in being able to attend “world-class concerts” at the Kennedy Center.
He met his girlfriend a few months ago “the way every young person meets these days”: online. It’s still new, but it’s going “very well,” McFadden said.
Inspired by all of these “pull factors,” as he put it, McFadden sought several jobs in the D.C. area when he found out about the USDA relocation. After a feverish round of applications, his best option came in Oklahoma, near where he grew up. He received no offers in the District.
McFadden started as an assistant professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma last week. Though he feels the job is an “exciting opportunity,” the transition is hard to stomach.
He misses his work at the USDA — such as the long report on precision agriculture he’ll never get to finish. He misses his girlfriend; the couple decided to try long-distance, given her job is based in Washington. He misses the city.
McFadden starts most mornings by listening to D.C.-based public radio station WAMU. He still gets emails inviting him to go on group jogs or attend events at D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose. He opens and reads every message.
“It’s tough, but I’m managing,” McFadden said. He clarified: “I’m trying to manage.”
'Nobody sees you crying'
Johnson spends every Sunday morning the same way.
She drives about 20 minutes to her church, Restoration United Methodist Church in Reston, to help a group of volunteers set up for the sermon and lay out breakfast for congregants. Johnson always prepares the coffee and lemonade pitchers. It’s one of many lay leadership roles — including serving as an usher and leading a Bible study group — the church lets her hold, Johnson said, evidence of its unusually welcoming attitude toward LGBTQ individuals. She’s searching for a similarly accepting church in Delaware.
Johnson knows exactly how to cut the thin paper filters so they fit into the church’s finicky coffee maker. She’s labeled cups and pitchers with marker so she can measure out the right amounts of Lemonade powder and water without thinking.
On a recent Sunday, as she brewed coffee and poured lemonade, congregants approached to ask about the move. Some congratulated her on retirement. Johnson smiled, thanked them and cracked a few jokes.
She is trying to remain upbeat — and there’s at least one upside to the drive to Delaware she’ll undertake, alone, at the end of September.
“I learned when Jane died that driving is a great place to grieve,” Johnson said. “Nobody sees you crying when you’re driving.”