Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is moving forward with plans to relocate two influential scientific agencies out of downtown Washington, a cost-saving initiative that critics fear could provoke mass resignations among employees who perform critical agricultural research and produce statistics that shape farm policy.
In a meeting last week, Chris Hartley, acting administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, told researchers at that agency to expect reassignment letters in mid-May, according to two ERS employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Although the new location has yet to be announced, Hartley told researchers that they would have about 120 days to uproot their families and report for duty. Of 68 towns and cities in contention to host the agency, College Park and Montgomery County, Md., are within a few dozen miles of its current offices. Many candidates, such as Denver, Des Moines and Kansas City, are hundreds or more than a thousand miles away.
Staff at the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which Perdue also selected for relocation, haven’t received a date for the move, said a NIFA employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to discuss the move.
The relocation plan was unveiled in August, a prelude to the broad restructuring of the USDA workforce that Perdue announced this month, dubbed “OneNeighborhood.” Among other provisions, it seeks to consolidate USDA employees, moving them out of rented space across the capital region and into two department-owned buildings in the D.C. area that are undergoing renovations.
NIFA rents expensive real estate on the D.C. waterfront. ERS leases offices in the nearby Patriots Plaza. Under the OneNeighborhood plan, some NIFA and ERS employees would move into renovated D.C. offices, according to an April 19 memo obtained by The Washington Post. But the majority of employees at both agencies will be ordered to relocate to a yet-to-be-named site, which Perdue has said would bring them closer to farmers.
The plan has sparked an excited competition in the nation’s agricultural hubs, with nearly 140 businesses, universities, city developers and local economic councils lobbying to become the agencies’ new homes. But it has drawn fierce objections from Democrats in Congress, USDA employees and a bipartisan coalition of former USDA leaders, who fear the move would devastate the two agencies, which are already losing staff in the face of sharp budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.
The NIFA employee estimated the agency has shrunk from about 400 employees to 200 since President Trump took office. “Every two days, somebody takes off” for another job or early retirement, the staffer said.
ERS is down from more than 300 employees to 250, said Sandra Salstrom, a legal representative at the American Federation of Government Employees, a union for federal workers.
Perdue’s office did not respond to requests to discuss the proposal. In a written statement, the secretary’s press office said the relocation plan is part of a broader “effort to make USDA the most effective, efficient and customer-focused department in the entire federal government,” arguing the move will “minimize costs” while bringing USDA workers “closer to all of their stakeholders.”
Past USDA chief scientists expressed “profound concern” in a letter to Congress, co-signed by more than 70 former USDA officials, university deans and agriculture scientists. “In a major relocation, there will be substantial staff loss because of either an unwillingness or other preventing circumstances to move,” the letter said. Signatories also worried that move could fray the close ties between these offices and nearby federal research agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy.
“This parochial idea of, like, ‘Washington messes everything up. Let’s move it out of town’ overlooks the important role that this agency plays,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Agriculture Committee who has introduced legislation to block the move. “There’s just a heightened level of concern about this administration, generally, about data collection and science.”
There is currently no chief scientist overseeing the research at USDA. Trump’s first nominee, the radio host Sam Clovis, had no scientific credentials and withdrew his nomination in 2017 over links to the Russia investigation. Scott Hutchins, the second nominee, was awaiting Senate confirmation when he was appointed, in January, as the deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, a position that does not require congressional approval.
The nation has a growing population that needs to be fed, a climate that is changing and a “research process that is continuing to slide,” said Gale Buchanan, who was the undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics under George W. Bush and who signed the letter warning against the proposed move. “We are on a collision course for — I won’t say disaster — but we are on a collision course.”
The Economic Research Service is a statistical agency whose reports, such as its annual survey of rural America, influence policy and industry decisions. Its economists study subjects as diverse as avocado imports, farm labor practices and reliance on the national food assistance program, the latter of which is a frequent Republican target for budget cuts.
NIFA provides funding to researchers at land grant universities and other institutions across the country. It has funded agricultural robots, gene-editing crop science and even space worms — in January the USDA announced a plan to send nematodes, small parasitic worms that kill insects, to the International Space Station to test whether the worms can control pests in microgravity.
“A lot of us see NIFA as the core of USDA, in terms of discovering the knowledge needed for the future of feeding the world,” said Jack Payne, the University of Florida’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
NIFA grants also fuel research into agriculture and climate change, science the Trump administration rejects. It also oversees the 4-H youth organization. When NIFA recently produced a policy to support 4-H’s LGBT community, this caused “an enormous stink” in the secretary’s office, said the NIFA employee.
The USDA’s inspector general is reviewing the proposal to determine whether Perdue has the power to move the offices. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) argued in an April letter that USDA lacks the budgetary authority and must seek approval from the House and Senate appropriations committees.
Congress, in its 2019 appropriations bill, told the secretary’s office to hold off on the plan, citing “insufficient information and justification” for the relocation.
The president’s 2020 budget proposal asks for $15.5 million to relocate ERS and $9.5 million to relocate NIFA. It also slashes ERS funding from $87 million to $61 million, and would trim the agency to 160 positions. The request would also eliminate research into food security and rural economies while keeping a focus on farm financial information, consumer data and trade. Congress ignored similar cuts proposed in 2018 and 2019.
In the fall, the USDA hired accounting firm Ernst & Young, for $340,000, to guide the science agencies’ relocation. Kristi J. Boswell, a senior adviser to the USDA secretary, told members of Congress the secretary plans to reveal the winning selection in May and, simultaneously, release a cost-benefit analysis.
“We have received stacks and stacks and stacks of support letters from senators, members of Congress, governors, community leaders, business leaders associations and local communities,” Boswell said during the March congressional hearing about the proposal.
Tim Daman, president of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce in Michigan, said he was “pleased” that East Lansing is a contender. “Michigan is one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation,” he said, home to 50,000 farms, Michigan State University and a new dairy factory designed to produce 300 million pounds of cheese annually (nearly the weight, in cheddar, of two Washington Monuments). “The region is proud of our agricultural roots and the investment the industry has made in our community.”
Craig Beyrouty, the dean of the agriculture school at the University of Maryland at College Park, said his city’s bid would fulfill Perdue’s desire to move the agencies while keeping NIFA on the D.C. Metro’s Green Line. He said a new building could be erected in College Park within 18 months, but declined to provide other details. In addition to the location offered in College Park, the USDA owns 7,000 acres in nearby Beltsville, Md.
“There’s a huge amount of support to keep NIFA and ERS located in, or very close to, the Washington district,” Beyrouty said.
“From the perspective of what we actually do at our agency, we just can’t see any good reason to do this,” the NIFA employee said. “It just doesn’t really make any sense.”