Some 136 entities from 35 states have told USDA they are interested in becoming the new sites of the department’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and homes to their 600 or so employees.

In a news release, USDA said it plans to pick the new location, or locations, by January 2019 after retaining a consultant – in this case Ernst and Young – with expertise in relocations. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said he expects the moves to take place this coming summer, and some workers from the two agencies will stay in Washington.

“The interest from across the country has been overwhelming as localities, universities, private entities, and elected officials realize the potential for their communities in become the new home for these two agencies,” Perdue said.  “It is an old saying that not all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C., but it is gratifying to see so many folks step forward wanting to prove that to be the case."

The expressions of interest come from as close as the University of Maryland in College Park, just outside the nation’s capital, and as far away as Sacramento, California, where the Greater Sacramento Economic Council sent in its bid. As expected, dozens of enquiries were submitted by entities in the country’s heartland, including from schools such as Iowa State University, the University of Illinois and Purdue University in Indiana. They also include nonprofit organizations, state and county development agencies, municipalities, and for-profit entities. 

The relocations are said to be under consideration for a variety of reasons. USDA says moving the agencies will position important department resources closer to many stakeholders, and taxpayers will realize significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. Finally, it says, the plan will improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.

The plan has drawn criticism from former leaders of ERS and NIFA, as well as directors of non-USDA federal statistical agencies. Contrary to USDA claims, they say, the agencies do not have unusually high turnover rates, have no problem recruiting talented employees, and are both in the right location for interacting with a wide variety of stakeholders.

“Relocating the ERS out of the Washington area will certainly mean a significant loss of experienced staff, which, in turn, will jeopardize the ERS operations for, potentially, years to come,” said a letter from scientific and advocacy groups in September. Signers included the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the American Dairy Science Association and the Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

In today’s release, USDA repeated that no ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated as part of the relocations.

“Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most.” USDA said. “Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location.”

States represented in the expressions of interest are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Today’s USDA news release includes a complete list of all entities submitting expressions of interest.

Perdue notes 91 percent of USDA’s approximately 108,000 employees already work outside the Washington, D.C., region.

(This story was updated at 5 p.m.)

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