Employees of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture should know by January where their new offices will be, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue told the top lawmakers on the Senate Agriculture Committee in a letter obtained by Agri-Pulse.

Responding to questions from Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Perdue also said the offices would be moved by next summer.

“We hope that this timeline provides enough notice to employees to allow families to make considerations regarding spousal employment and to accommodate our employees with school-aged children,” Perdue said in the Sept. 20 letter. “It is important to limit the window of uncertainty for our employees, which is why I have instituted what some believe to be an aggressive timeline.”

“(T)o avoid as much work disruptions as possible, we anticipate a rolling transition from D.C. to the new location,” he said in the letter, which makes clear that ERS and NIFA could end up in the same place or in separate locations. 

The proposal, which would affect some 600 to 700 employees, has been subject to severe criticism from a host of stakeholders, including agricultural economists and scientific researchers who fear that relocating the agencies outside of the National Capital region would lead to budget and staff reductions, and ultimately, a loss of influence. Dozens of groups, including the American Seed Trade Association and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, have questioned the reasoning behind the proposal and predicted that few employees would elect to leave their homes to continue working at the agencies.

Perdue, while acknowledging an undetermined number of staff will choose not to move, also said, “I fully intend to keep NIFA and ERS at their current staffing levels, subject to any changes in our appropriations levels.”

“I have no doubt that the long-run viability of both ERS and NIFA will be strengthened even in the face of diminishing budgets by significantly reducing rent and living costs allowing us to maintain robust NIFA and ERS programs of work focused by being closer to our primary stakeholders we serve,” he said.

He reiterated the department’s rationale for moving the two agencies. “Specifically, we believe that this decision will:

  • “Place these important USDA resources closer to stakeholders who live and work outside the D.C. area;
  • “Benefit the American taxpayers. There will be potential for savings on employment and facility costs, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets; and
  • “Improve our ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from our land-grant universities.”

Asked by the senators for “evidence” that ERS and NIFA have difficulty recruiting and retaining employees – a claim disputed by those critical of the proposal – Perdue said, “the high cost of living and long commutes of Washington D.C. are well documented and empirically understood, and a new location with more affordable housing will allow employees to live closer to their workplace, lower commute times, and improve their quality of life.”

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“We believe we may not be attracting key talent to certain agricultural research positions in both ERS and NIFA because of the high cost of living and long commute lengths in the National Capital Region,” he said.

He also repeated the department’s argument that ERS and NIFA have higher attrition rates than the department as a whole. The proposal’s detractors, including former heads of NIFA and ERS, say that they never had trouble finding qualified personnel and that the ERS and NIFA attrition rates are in line with other agencies.

Asked what other alternatives were considered besides relocation, Perdue said that “during the decision-making process, we are reviewing multiple options that include USDA-owned space currently available and a  review of GSA space.” In a webinar last week, Deputy Secretary Steve Censky said USDA would be looking at space owned by USDA in Beltsville, Md.

Perdue also said the department has the legal authority to reorganize ERS so that it reports to the Chief Economist instead of to the Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics. However, he added, “a dotted line of oversight will be retained by the Undersecretary for REE.”

The department is asking for “expressions of interest” from possible locations to be sent in by Oct. 15. Asked by the senators which stakeholders were consulted before the relocation proposal was announced, Perdue said, “We are consistently reviewing operations and working with stakeholders on all matters. This is an internal operational decision that we typically do not solicit for public comment, similarly to our decision to create the Farm Production and Conservation Mission area. With that said, we are actively meeting with stakeholders and welcome feedback as we go forward.”

“I have been encouraged by the bipartisan interest and support of this decision,” he said.  

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