The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many USDA workers to quit as research agencies move to Kansas City: ‘The brain drain we all feared’

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds an avocado he picked as he visits a farm in California on Monday. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Two research agencies at the Agriculture Department will uproot from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City in the fall. But many staffers have decided to give up their jobs rather than move, prompting concerns of hollowed-out offices unable to adequately fund or inform agricultural science.

About two-thirds of the USDA employees declined their reassignments, according to a tally the department released Tuesday. Ninety-nine of 171 employees at the Economic Research Service, an influential federal statistical agency, will not move. At the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which manages a $1.7 billion portfolio in scientific funding, 151 of 224 employees declined to relocate.

Jack Payne, University of Florida’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources, warned that the hemorrhage of employees will devastate ERS and NIFA. “This is the brain drain we all feared, possibly a destruction of the agencies,” Payne said.

Workers who agreed to move must do so by Sept. 30, although USDA has not established permanent office space and has not said whether the agencies will be located on the Missouri or Kansas side of the Kansas City area. Workers who were asked to move but declined “will be separated by adverse action procedures,” per letters the employees received in June.

The department expects relocation numbers may “fluctuate” until the Sept. 30 cutoff, according to a statement provided by USDA. “These anticipated ranges were taken into account in the department’s long-term strategy, which includes both efforts to ensure separating employees have the resources they need as well as efforts to implement an aggressive hiring strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work.”

Tim Cowden, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council, which advocated for the relocation to Kansas City, said in a statement that “just over 36 percent of those given the option to relocate have accepted, which is very strong for any HQ relocation. We remain committed to working with all USDA employees interested in relocating to KC.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), along with Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), was an early supporter of the move to Kansas City. Cleaver said in a statement he empathized “with not wanting to uproot your family.” But if the move “has to happen,” he said, “then Kansas City is the best place in America for these agencies’ new home,” because it can “fill the void with competent and qualified individuals.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told The Washington Post, “This kind of staff loss will completely gut the ERA and NIFA, and will ultimately prevent the USDA from conducting critical research that helps grow the food our families eat.”

Sonny Ramaswamy, the NIFA director from 2012 to 2018, said he was aware of $50 million in grants, slated to be distributed over the next three months, for research areas identified as priorities in the 2018 farm bill. Those grants would have funded studies into subjects as diverse as disease-resistant cotton in Mississippi and hail-damaged corn in Nebraska.

Now, that science is “not going to happen,” Ramaswamy said, because the planned move has disrupted the agency. A senior NIFA scientist familiar with the grants, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional retaliation, confirmed that these grants are on hold and in danger of never being distributed.

NIFA, when fully staffed, employs about 400 people. As it becomes more diminished, the agency’s ability to review grant proposals, manage awards or hold grant recipients accountable is threatened, Ramaswamy said. He predicted tens of millions of dollars in grant funding will be in jeopardy. Most money earmarked for NIFA grants, if unspent, returns to the Treasury Department.

Katherine Smith Evans, the ERS administrator from 2007 to 2011, reviewed a list of employees who are leaving. Four of five economists working on bees and pollination at ERS have left or will leave, she said. Ten of 12 economists working on trade and international development have retired, already left or plan to do so. None of the farm finance and tax experts will remain with the agency. “I agree with people who say it will take 10 years to recover,” Smith Evans said.

Gale Buchanan, the USDA chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics in the George W. Bush administration, said employees face “an almost impossible task” by trying to do their jobs with reduced numbers.

The decision process, he said, has been flawed. “I could live by whatever blue-ribbon committee recommended to do to address some of the concerns the secretary had,” Buchanan said. But, he added, “you don’t just pull an idea out of the air and, for some political reason, make a decision.”

The agencies were understaffed even before Tuesday’s tally of those who will not relocate. Employees at the agencies quit in large numbers before the department issued reassignment letters. In early June, vacancy rates at the agencies were about 20 to 25 percent.

“Both agencies already have experienced significant losses of skilled personnel, beginning back when the proposed move was announced,” Payne said. “The percentage of employees moving is even smaller when the denominator is the full staff level.” During fiscal year 2018, ERS had 320 employees. Unless a wave of new hires fills the deserted desks, by this fall, ERS will be half the size it was two years ago.

When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the relocation in August, he said it would “provide more streamlined and efficient services.” A cost-benefit analysis released by the department in June suggests moving to Kansas City will save as much as $300 million over 15 years.

An organization of economists, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, disputed the projected savings; the move may cost taxpayers money, the group said, because the analysis overestimated the expense of retaining the agencies in the capital and did not calculate the value of lost research.

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