Staff numbers at both agencies have plummeted by about 75 percent since the relocation. At NIFA, the employees who approve the grant paperwork and release funds are gone. The publishing staff at ERS did not accept the reassignment to Kansas City. The flow of research and grants from these agencies has slowed, employees said, piled up behind the logjam of empty desks.
An internal ERS memo obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by Politico describes dozens of delayed ERS reports. Two USDA employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the document, confirmed the existence of this list, which was circulated among ERS managers in mid-September.
According to a statement that USDA’s press office provided Tuesday, “ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission-critical work throughout the transition, and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its mandated and calendared projects.”
The nearly 40 delayed reports include studies into veterans’ diets, honeybee health and the opioid epidemic. Other reports address obesity, international markets and organic foods. These studies are completed but unpublished. Other ERS projects, in earlier stages, have been abandoned.
Laura Dodson, an economist and acting vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, the union chapter that represents ERS employees, had been working on what was to be a two-year-long report on the herbicide dicamba. Soybean farmers use dicamba where weeds have developed resistance to another herbicide, glyphosate. But dicamba “has serious negative effects to neighboring farms who don’t plant dicamba-resistant seeds,” Dodson said. “It can essentially wipe out their whole crop.”
ERS is “one of the few places, if not the only place right now, that has field-level data on dicamba drift issues,” Dodson said. The scientists who would have been her co-authors left ERS. Dodson will be unable to complete the study alone.
At NIFA, program directors and grant reviewers ensured that unspent funds in danger of returning to the Treasury Department at the end of the fiscal year were successfully obligated (meaning the money has been designated for specific projects). But no staff remain at the agency who are able to approve the grant paperwork or authorize the funds’ release.
As a result, tens of millions of dollars in approved grants are in limbo, set aside for recipients but unreleased. Funds for projects supported by NIFA’s competitive grant program, the $400 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, also have been delayed.
Michael P. O’Neill, an extension scientist at the University of Connecticut, said he was told last week to expect additional 60-day funding delays, bringing wait times up to four months. “They’re great people, and they’re going to do the best they can,” said O’Neill, a former NIFA program director. “But they have a budget of $1.7 billion — that’s a lot of money to move with a really, really reduced staff.”
At the University of Connecticut, some NIFA funds pay the salaries of employees who study water quality, operate greenhouses and perform other agricultural jobs, O’Neill said. Large land-grant universities will be able to weather these delays, he predicted, but he was concerned that historically black universities and tribal colleges may be hit harder.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) sent a letter to Perdue on Friday asking about the status of NIFA grants. According to her letter, as of last week, funding had not been awarded for several NIFA programs as mandated by the farm bill, such as the Specialty Crops Research Initiative, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (which promotes the purchase of fruits and vegetables among people who receive food stamps).
“With over 75 percent of reassigned employees opting not to relocate, on top of already high vacancy rates, the relocation has left these agencies with little ability to do their important work,” Stabenow wrote.
About 70 of 224 NIFA employees eligible to relocate accepted the reassignment, according to an internal estimate, said Thomas Bewick, a NIFA employee and AFGE chapter vice president. Every worker who declined the reassignment was to be fired on Friday, but USDA extended some employees’ contracts through March. According to the USDA statement, 38 employees at ERS and 22 employees at NIFA have “delayed relocation orders."
A head count of staff at ERS, conducted by the union, determined that 141 of 181 employees declined to move, Dodson said. Twenty-four people had their contracts extended. Sixteen accepted the reassignment.
“USDA is doing a bunch of different things to try to prevent us from going into mission failure,” Dodson said. It has asked employees who chose to retire in September to return to work part-time.
“ERS and NIFA are working to bring people back on by the next pay period,” per the USDA statement. Short-term contractors and employees from other agencies in the department also are helping to “ensure mission continuity through the transition.”
Two new NIFA employees were “onboarding” in Kansas City, USDA Deputy Undersecretary Scott Hutchins wrote in an email to employees on Sept. 6. “There are approximately 150 permanent recruitments in progress right now for ERS and NIFA,” he said.
As of Monday, according to the USDA, 15 new ERS employees and 16 relocated employees were working in Kansas City. Forty-five NIFA employees have relocated to Kansas City, where they were joined by four new employees, USDA said. Seventy-four ERS employees and 19 NIFA employees remain as permanent staff in D.C.