Agriculture secretary defends research agencies’ move to Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City, Mo. — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said Friday that he has “absolutely zero regrets” about moving the headquarters of two research agencies from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, despite continuing criticism that the move would harm agricultural research and make it less available to federal lawmakers.
Perdue joined political leaders from Missouri and Kansas in touring the new headquarters for the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Kansas City, Mo., and to celebrate a move that he said would improve researchers’ work by placing them closer to farmers, colleges with agriculture experts and hundreds of private agribusinesses.
He said he was surprised by the opposition that erupted in Washington when the plan to move about 550 employees to Kansas City was announced in June, but he still believes it was the right decision.
“I thought we were doing the right thing and I am convinced today even more so having been here and seeing where we will be on the ground that we did the right thing,” Perdue said. “I applaud this decision, I celebrate this decision and I have absolutely zero regrets of beginning this process and finishing this process right here in Kansas City.”
Perdue praised the congressional delegations, governors and other leaders in Kansas and Missouri for working together to win a competition for the headquarters that originally drew 136 expressions of interest from around the country. He and others said the agencies will benefit from being closer to people with agricultural knowledge.
“There’s a certain culture here, and that influences your on-the-ground ability there, rather than sitting somewhere that doesn’t have any agriculture,” he said. “You’re going to find more people in this region that know about agriculture, have the challenges and stress of the year-in and year-out agriculture and be able to make decisions and policies that help inform better research and policy from the USDA.”
USDA economist Laura Dodson, acting vice president of the union that represents ERS employees, called the idea that moving to Kansas City would help the agencies’ agricultural research “patently ridiculous.”
“We do a national level of research,” she said. “Suggesting we could be better researchers seeing a single cornfield in one state is wrong. We are in service of national agriculture; we service all, not just one region or a specific few.”
The Economic Research Service examines issues including the rural economy, international trade, food safety and programs that provide food assistance to poor Americans. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture provides grants for agricultural research.
Dodson also said the move had devastated morale at the two agencies, where those who made the move are expected to do the same amount of work with far fewer employees. She used to work with 12 researchers, but her unit now consists of her and one other worker.
Many agency employees refused to move to Missouri, raising concerns about finding qualified researchers to replace them. Perdue said a recent job fair for 107 vacant positions at the agency drew 6,000 applications, and he expects the agencies to be fully staffed during the first quarter of 2020. He rejected concerns about a loss of institutional memory after hundreds of employees chose not to move, saying those who moved to Kansas City would quickly train new hires.
Dodson predicted that the agency would have a difficult time filling highly specialized research jobs requiring difficult academic training. Even before the agencies moved from the nation’s capital, every job opening required a national search because “not many people can do what we do” and the pool of economists who could work at the agency is not deep, she said.
The USDA said Friday that as of the pay period ending Oct. 26, ERS has 30 employees in Kansas City, with 69 employees permanently remaining in Washington, D.C., while NIFA has 66 employees in Kansas City, with 18 employees remaining in Washington. ERS has 16 employees and NIFA has 15 employees in Kansas City-based positions whose relocation dates have been extended to Dec. 9 and March 30, 2020 respectively. In total, ERS has 122 positions occupied and NIFA has 92 positions occupied.
Both agencies also are using re-employed workers, short-term contractors and employees from other agencies “to help ensure mission continuity through the transition” and the USDA has well over 150 active recruitments in process between both agencies, the agency said.