Citing hundreds of millions in savings over a 15-year period, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue today announced the Kansas City region has been chosen as the new home for the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. But ERS will not be moved under the Office of Chief Economist, as previously proposed.

“The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be [a] hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland," Perdue said in a news release. "There is already a significant presence of USDA and federal government employees in the region, including the Kansas City ‘Ag Bank’ Federal Reserve. This agriculture talent pool, in addition to multiple land-grant and research universities within driving distance, provides access to a stable labor force for the future. The Kansas City Region will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.” 

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at the Economic Research Service, said ERS employees greeted the announcement "with no enthusiasm."

"Secretary Perdue has stated that his rush to finalize the relocation is an attempt to limit the anxiety and burden on employees," AFGE Local 3403 said in response to the news. "In reality, his announcement today will bring nothing but further burden to the agency with an acceleration of the loss of mission-critical staff and senior leadership who cannot or will not move to a new location. Despite the assurance that the relocation is not an attempt to shrink the agency, ERS has been prevented from on-boarding new employees during this time of induced uncertainty."

The local also said "notification that a final site would be announced today was not provided to either ERS employees or managers, both of whom learned of the announcement through the press." ERS employees received an email with a statement from Perdue at 10:37 a.m. EDT, more than a half hour after the news had been announced by members of Congress.

"I want you all to know that this decision was not entered into lightly," Perdue told the employees. "And having recently undergone a major relocation of my own, I understand that this decision creates personal disruption for some of our colleagues and their families. But I want to make sure that this transition and the coming months are as smooth and as minimally disruptive as possible."

"State and local governments have offered generous relocation incentives packages totaling more than $26 million, which will help offset relocation expenses," he said. Employees at the agencies now have 30 days to decide whether to move, and then 90 days to actually relocate.

The Kansas City Star reported  that several locations are being considered in Missouri and Kansas.

USDA said "conservative estimates" in a cost-benefit analysis "show a savings of nearly $300 million nominally over a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent, or about $20 million per year, which will allow more funding for research of critical needs like rural prosperity and agricultural competitiveness, and for programs and employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets." 

“Today’s decision is a testament to the wonderful attributes of the Heartland and reflects the hard work of our local congressional representatives and members of the Kansas City community who did an excellent job highlighting the benefits of relocating these jobs to our area,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. “Housing these important agencies in the Heartland will locate them closer to stakeholders, and Kansas City has a low cost of living and a highly qualified workforce. The region is well suited for this honor. We are elated to hear that Kansas City was selected as the new home for ERS and NIFA.”

The Kansas City Area Development Council said the area "was selected for its existing concentration of USDA employees and operations, the more than 150 federal agencies in the area, proximity to 13 land-grant universities, and central location in the agricultural heart of the country. This concentration is enhanced by the area’s research capabilities and industry-led initiatives like the KC Animal Health Corridor."

“Because of Kansas City’s 100+ year legacy of leadership in the agriculture and animal health industries, this decision feels like a homecoming for the USDA,” said KCADC President and CEO Tim Cowden. "We welcome the ERS and NIFA teams and look forward to introducing them to KC’s incredible culture, robust scientific community and unprecedented access to the research, farm, agribusiness and financial customers they serve.”

Senators from Missouri and Kansas also applauded the decision. In a news release, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said “these agencies will bring hundreds of good-paying jobs to the area and enhance Missouri’s role as a national leader in ag research." He was joined in the release by Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who represents parts of Kansas City, also issued a release. "The move is expected to bring more than 550 jobs to the Kansas City region with wages averaging between $80,000-$100,000, while also bringing ERS and NIFA employees closer to the agricultural stakeholders and rural communities they serve."

Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, criticized the move. “I am appalled with the Trump administration’s decision to force hundreds of Washington-based USDA research staffers to uproot their lives to Kansas City in order to keep their livelihoods," she said. "The fact that NIFA and ERS staff both overwhelmingly voted to form a union demonstrates that they felt powerless to change the Trump administration’s politically motivated decision."

USDA announced last August it planned to move ERS and NIFA out of Washington, D.C., saying that a relocation would “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff” and place USDA resources closer to farmers.

USDA also said the move would result in “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.”

Critics of the relocation, however, say the agencies are able to attract employees to D.C. and retain them.

ERS and NIFA employees recently voted to unionize. The ERS local, which was formed after a 138-4 vote in favor of joining AFGE, said "ERS employees know Washington, D.C., is the exact location they need to be to achieve its mission as a designated statistical agency that produces nonpartisan research and analysis."

At a congressional hearing last week, Jack Payne, head of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 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.”

Various sites in Indiana as well as the Research Triangle region of Raleigh, N.C., were also in the running. 

The relocation has been criticized by dozens of scientific and farm groups, which have said it will move the agencies farther from their stakeholders, not closer.

Former ERS administrators, NIFA directors and ag scientists and researchers have said the agencies benefit from being in Washington, D.C., where they can meet and collaborate with other federal scientific and statistical agencies.

Catherine Woteki and Gale Buchanan, chief scientists at USDA during the administrations of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, said in a Washington Post op-ed last week that Perdue has been undercutting science at the department.

They also said that while they would not “speculate on the motives of the Trump administration’s leaders at the USDA, … we can say that these proposals came only after objective studies and analyses produced by economists and scientists at [ERS] conflicted with Trump administration policies.”

They added, “Many of the economists that would be affected instead found new jobs at other agencies in the District — creating the sort of brain drain that the administration has seemed intent on prompting with its proposed budget cuts.”

The president’s proposed budget sought a cut of about 30 percent in the ERS budget. 

Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, issued a statement saying that even before the new location was chosen, "the damage was already done."

"It’s clear that from the start the Trump administration is systematically hollowing out USDA science," Salvador said. "The White House proposed budget cuts to virtually eliminate research inconvenient to the administration’s interests and created an unnecessary relocation crisis that is driving off scientists who conduct that very research. Meanwhile, the administration is also trying to dismantle the firewall between the political part of the USDA and the data collection and statistical work conducted by its research agencies. All of which could put the agency at risk of losing its designation as a federal principal statistical agency."

The American Statistical Association said, "We all pay for a dismantled Economic Research Service that will never get back to its current number-three ranking in the world for agricultural economics research. The relocation disrupts the quality, breadth, and timeliness of ERS’ reports on topics ranging from trade and farm income to nutrition assistance and commodity projections to rural economies and food safety. Being located outside of D.C. will also mean it will be far-removed from its primary audiences and collaborators, not to mention the rich talent pool so appealing to Amazon for its new headquarters. Such setbacks will impact the work of ERS in the long run."

This story has been updated to include additional reaction.

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