Opposition to moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington, D.C., continues to mount, with the National Farmers Union the latest to voice concern about USDA’s proposal.

NFU’s President, Roger Johnson, criticized the plan in a Sept.18 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, telling him “the process to relocate these agencies has lacked meaningful public input that would better inform any final decision” and urging USDA to “be more forthcoming and transparent with the metrics it utilized in developing the current proposal.”

In addition, Johnson said, “We are concerned that the move will lead to a large loss of knowledgeable and experienced staff” and “any disruption in the execution of these agencies’ functions would have a significant detrimental impact on family farmers and ranchers.”

Although the potential move of ERS has garnered the most attention, supporters of NIFA also are worried about the proposal, announced by USDA last month.

Research organizations have asked USDA to provide some opportunity for public input on the potential impact of the NIFA relocation. For now, USDA is asking for “expressions of interest” from communities who want to host the agencies, a request that a USDA spokesperson said has garnered “multiple dozens” of responses “from state and local officials, colleges and universities, and other entities, which take the form of expressions of interest in becoming the new homes of ERS and NIFA.”

On Sept. 13, USDA extended the deadline for those entreaties until Oct. 15, but has not asked for comments on the merits of the move. A department spokesperson said USDA is not making those documents public for now.

The National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research, an advisory group currently chaired by Andy LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) joined scientific groups and a number of university agriculture schools in asking the department to slow down its consideration of the NIFA move. 

Andy LaVigne, CEO of ASTA

LaVigne said NCFAR is trying to better understand what USDA’s intent is and what advantages the relocation could provide. The group is concerned about NIFA’s ability to work with commodity groups and university researchers to develop plant breeds that are critical to addressing challenges faced by farmers. 

He said there are good reasons for NIFA to be in the D.C. area, including the ability of its experts to interact with other agencies and departments, such as the Energy Department on biofuel issues; the Bureau of Land Management; and the National Institutes of Health.

“Those are the groups we consider their counterparts or their peers. It makes it harder for them to interact with those organizations when they (NIFA personnel) are not here,” LaVigne said.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended the proposal in an interview with Agri-Pulse last week. “Frankly, all of us empirically can understand there are less expensive places to live than the National Capital region, there are less expensive places to raise a family,” he said, suggesting it would be easier to recruit people to work in places other than Washington, D.C.

“Many, frankly, we believe would volunteer to go somewhere else,” he said.

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He also stressed that a “cadre” of senior officials would remain behind in both agencies so visitors to Washington, D.C. would be able to “interface with the leadership of ERS as well as NIFA.”

Asked whether a cost-benefit analysis or any other type of detailed rationale had been developed to support the proposal, Perdue said, “Maybe not to the degree that we’re able to publish or willing to publish at this point in time.” But he added that USDA would be responding to questions from Congress as they come in.

But former NIFA director Sonny Ramaswamy, who left USDA earlier this year to become the president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Washington state, said he never had any problem recruiting people to work at NIFA. He routinely received hundreds of resumes, he said.

“Washington’s where the action is,” Ramaswamy said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. NIFA staff have been able to coordinate with other federal science agencies in the D.C. area and convene public discussions on issues critical to the agriculture industry, he said.

USDA has cited turnover rates in ERS and NIFA that it says are higher than for the department as a whole, but Ramaswamy said the department had a hand in creating those higher rates when it refused to fill any of about 70 vacancies in NIFA near the end of his tenure.

“You’re really looking at the natural ebb and flow (of employees) that’s now been artificially inflated – like putting your thumb on the scale,” he said.

A USDA spokesperson said Perdue “ultimately approved a portion of the NIFA hiring plan” – 19 positions – after Ramaswamy was no longer director.” are all in varying stages of the hiring process,” the spokesperson said, noting that Perdue “determined that he would wait for a new NIFA director to come on board before proceeding with further review of the hiring plan.”

Ramaswamy also said moving NIFA near a land-grant university could raise concerns about favoritism when that university receives a research grant.

NIFA, which awards hundreds of grants totaling hundreds of millions of dollars each year, has between 350 and 400 employees and a budget of $1.525 billion, which the administration proposed to cut in fiscal 2019 to $1.369 billion. Employees include about 100 people in grants and financial management, about 60 “national program leaders” in areas such as agronomy and soil science, and about 70 program specialists or assistants and administrative support staff. Other employees include executives, information technology workers, and civil rights compliance staff.

Congress appears unlikely to intervene in either the NIFA or ERS relocations for the time being, although House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Democrats on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, are fighting the move. The top Democrat on the panel, Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., is trying to insert a policy rider in the fiscal 2019 spending package for USDA to block the relocations, but Republicans are working to stop such a provision from being included. 

Bishop and Hoyer, however, will be better positioned to head off Perdue’s plans should Democrats win control of the House in November, and it’s possible the FY19 spending bill won’t be finalized until December. Perdue said that while “Congress has an oversight responsibility, they don’t really have a micromanagement responsibility.”

Meanwhile, the chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee are awaiting answers from Perdue on a series of questions about the ERS and NIFA plans. Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are asking Perdue to explain the rationale for the plan and to turn over any cost-benefit analysis that has been done.

In a Sept. 7 letter to Perdue, the senators cited concerns by some stakeholders that a large number of employees will be unable to move, “causing a sharp loss of knowledgeable staff.”

“I absolutely guarantee you that most people will not move,” Ramaswamy said.

Sonny Ramaswamy

Former NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy

A USDA spokesperson, however, cited an email that Ramaswamy wrote in December 2017 to Senate and House Agriculture Committee staff, in which he recommended that the salary of the next director salary be increased. Ramaswamy received $179,700 per year for the six years he headed NIFA.

“I have spoken to a number of potential director candidates – universally they have said that it would be tough for them to move to Washington, D.C., considering the cost and low salary (the average dean makes significantly more than $100,000 more per year in salary alone!),” Ramaswamy said in the email.

“Certainly, if the cost of living would be of concern for the director at that salary, it would be of concern to rank-and-file employees of NIFA as well,” the spokesperson said. “This is precisely one of the reasons we listed when we announced the ERS and NIFA move – the cost of living. It would appear that Dr. Ramaswamy agrees with us on that point.”

Ramaswamy, however, said, he was speaking only of the director’s position. His email noted that the base Senior Executive Service salary was $190,270.

“The NIFA director position must be eligible for cost-of-living and performance raises and performance bonuses, similar to what is recommended for career SES staff,” Ramaswamy said, adding that he had spoken to someone interested in the director position who told him the salary was a “deal-breaker.”

“Neither NIFA nor ERS has any serious issues with recruitment or retention,” said Catherine Woteki, formerly the chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics at USDA. She’s now on the faculty of Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Phil Brasher contributed to this story

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