The Department of Agriculture has not made a compelling case for moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside of Washington, D.C., two ag scientists and a farmer told a House Agriculture subcommittee Wednesday.

“I believe that the proposed relocation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the relocation and reorganization of the Economic Research Service will diminish our agricultural research capacity at one of the most critical times in U.S. agriculture in recent history,” University of Wisconsin agronomist William Tracy told the House Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research.

Tracy’s comments were echoed by Jack Payne, head of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and Liz Brownlee, a farmer from Indiana.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the proposed relocation of the agencies, along with a proposal to place ERS under the authority of the Office of the Chief Economist, last August. Recently, the department announced three finalists for the new location: the Kansas City area, multiple locations in Indiana, and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina.

In North Carolina Tuesday, Perdue said the decision would be made within “days and weeks” and acknowledged ERS staff’s opposition to the moves. ERS employees recently voted to unionize in order to fight the relocation.

“They have been very vocal obviously,” Perdue told the Raleigh News & Observer. “But anytime you make change and you move people’s cheese, there’s always anxiety.” 

Perdue has said there are a variety of reasons to move the agencies out of D.C.: They will be closer to farmers and ranchers; the D.C. area is expensive, making it hard to attract qualified scientists and researchers; and rent for ERS and NIFA will be cheaper.

Payne, however, said ERS and NIFA don’t need to be near producers. “NIFA and ERS have never worked with farmers and ranchers,” he said. Brownlee said “NIFA programs already have highly effective ways of working closely with farmers” and added, “I, and farmers like me, do not need NIFA and ERS to be in the field in my community. I do need NIFA and ERS to be working tirelessly to produce the best research, products, and policy to support us in our mission to feed our communities. That work is best done in Washington, D.C.”

Payne also said NIFA and ERS collaborate extensively with other federal agencies located in Washington, D.C., and that moving them will make that collaboration more difficult and expensive.

Subcommittee Chair Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., said USDA has been less than transparent during the relocation process. Stakeholders “were blindsided by the announcement” last August. In addition, she said pushing the proposal forward “will only exacerbate staff losses.”

Republicans on the subcommittee disputed Plaskett’s and the witnesses’ claims but did not question any of the witnesses. Republicans also were offered a chance to propose a witness for the hearing but declined to do so, a Democratic spokesman said.

Subcommittee ranking member Neal Dunn of Florida cited U.S. News & World Report in noting that “four of the five richest counties in the U.S. are located in [the] Washington, D.C., suburbs. Let’s face it — it is expensive to live and raise a family in this area, and USDA cites this fact as one of the biggest reasons why it is difficult top attract top talent and why the department struggles to fill positions.”

Payne, however, said the D.C. area “has a highly educated workforce and a vibrant employment sector that is attractive to two-career families. That gives NIFA and ERS a large talent pool to draw upon to fill mission-critical vacancies.”

Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., touted his state’s Research Triangle area as “the perfect place for a relocation if it is to happen,” noting its proximity to the D.C. area, the wide variety of soil types in the state, and “numerous ag biotech companies.”

State congressional delegations from Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas and Missouri have written letters to Perdue promoting their states as the best places to relocate the agencies.

After the hearing, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., spoke to reporters to rebut Democrats’ claims. “Why don’t we have the bureaucrats … live amongst the different communities at less cost?” He advocated for placing ERS researchers and NIFA grant-makers closer to producers, instead of in “this concrete jungle that is Washington, D.C. Spread them across the country.”

Dozens of ag, food and scientific groups are opposed to the moves, including the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the American Statistical Association and the National Farmers Union. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities also has come out against the moves.

But Dunn cited letters in support of the relocations from the congressional delegations, and from Republicans on the House Ag Committee in saying Perdue has “broad support” for the moves. A host of Missouri farm groups also are supporting Kansas City as the new home for the agencies.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., cited support for the relocation to Kansas City from Kansas State University, the University of Missouri, Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Also Wednesday, ranking members of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Public Works and Homeland Security committees wrote to Perdue about the relocation.  

“We are concerned that the Administration’s plans to relocate these agencies will hamper the ability of the agencies to achieve their important research missions, add unnecessary expenses, increase staff turnover, and hinder the recruitment and retention of staff at NIFA and ERS,” senators Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Tom Carper, D-Del., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., said.

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