By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- So far, most employees at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture are not making the move to Kansas City as part a reorganization.
As a result, some members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are raising concerns about what may be a daunting task in replacing those employees in addition to filling already-vacant positions in the agency.
The primary concern is that a so-called brain drain from the two federal agencies will hurt the future of agriculture research.
Following USDA's June 13 announcement of the move to Kansas City, it was expected that more than 500 NIFA and ERS jobs would move from Washington, D.C. Multiple press reports this week, however, show a small percentage of those employees are making the move to Kansas City. Employees at the agencies had until midnight on July 15 to accept or decline relocation. ERS and NIFA employees have until Sept. 30 to make the move to Kansas City.
Scott Hutchins, the agriculture deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics at USDA, told the committee during a hearing on Thursday the agency is doing all it can to make sure continuity of services is maintained during the move.
Hutchins said USDA believes the move will benefit agriculture research in the long term, and is good for agriculture as a whole.
"Potential savings will allow more funding for research of critical needs like rural prosperity and agricultural competitiveness, and for programs and employees to be retained in the long run, especially in the face of tightening budgets," he said.
"As a result of this move, no ERS or NIFA employee will be involuntarily separated. Every employee who wants to continue working in their position will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., questioned why President Donald Trump's administration is giving NIFA and ERS workers a short period of time to make the move, when needed facilities are not going to be available in Kansas City for some time.
A number of experts from the agencies could be retained, she said, if USDA gave employees flexibility to continue working in Washington, D.C., until a permanent location is ready in Kansas City.
Stabenow suggested the administration could extend the deadline for researchers to decide whether they will leave their jobs or relocate.
"Instead, the administration is forcing out its employees with rushed and politically calculated ultimatums designed to derail important agricultural research," she said.
"This relocation fits a troubling pattern of this administration undermining the important work of the USDA, including critical research our farmers need to address the impacts of the severe weather caused by the changing climate. Congress has resoundingly rejected multiple budget proposals that would have cut USDA economic research by 50%."
Stabenow said the administration was undermining the need for expanded agriculture research, and the usually bipartisan support for agriculture research may be in jeopardy.
"Unfortunately, the bipartisan commitment to agricultural research, which started over 150 years ago, is at risk," she said.
"The administration's haphazard decision to relocate two critically important research institutions -- the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture -- will affect real people who rely on USDA services and hamper its capacity to support farmers, families, and rural communities for years to come. And for what? It is still unclear to me what problem the USDA is trying to solve with this move."
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the move to the Midwest makes sense considering USDA's mission.
"It makes sense to me in the middle of the bread basket," he said. "Can we lower the cost of operation in a place like that? I'm almost certain it will be lower cost than in D.C."
A USDA cost-benefit analysis estimated the move would save $300 million during a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent, or about $20 million per year.
USDA said state and local governments offered a relocation package totaling more than $26 million.
Stabenow and other Democrats on the committee questioned whether USDA has necessary funds and authority to make the move, suggesting the Trump administration is attempting to "go around Congress" to make cuts to USDA research.
"It's clear to me that this is not a relocation," Stabenow said. "It's a demolition. It's a thinly-veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees and bypass the intent of Congress. I urge the administration to stop this and salvage what valuable expertise is left. This decision does far more than hurt USDA employees. If this chaotic plan is not stopped, our farmers, families, and rural communities will be the ones that suffer the most in the long run."
Hutchins said USDA believes locating ERS and NIFA to Kansas City will allow the agencies to take advantage of regional talent.
"We believe this decision will improve USDA's future ability to attract and consistently retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture from numerous land-grant universities to complement the current talented staff, to place these important USDA resources closer to many of our stakeholders and to benefit the American taxpayer," he said.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN
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