USDA is working to ensure the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture continue to perform “mission-critical work” during the transition of the two agencies to the Kansas City region, a top-ranking science official told the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday.
Facing harsh criticism and tough questions from committee Democrats about the move, Scott Hutchins, USDA's deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics said the department wants to expand on and improve the work of the two agencies.
In the meantime, “We will be working desperately and deliberately … to make sure we don’t drop the ball on the mission in the short term,” Hutchins said at an hourlong hearing this morning.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., spoke in favor of the relocation. "My home state of Kansas has a strong history of agricultural research," he said. "The relocation of ERS and NIFA to this region would allow these agencies to access the many existing resources and benefits of the region," including nearby land-grant universities.
Roberts added, however, that "with any significant structural change, it is vital that we ensure the research mission remains intact ... we need to ensure that the department continues to produce quality analytic reports without delay during this transition."
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last month that the Kansas City region would be the new home of the two agencies and their approximately 550 employees, though that number has dipped considerably over the past year as employees have retired or left for other jobs.
On Tuesday, the department announced that 145 employees had agreed to move — about 37% of those designated for reassignment. Another 250 said they wouldn’t relocate or declined to provide an answer, leaving them some wiggle room to decide until Sept. 30, when employees are required to report for work in the new location.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee’s top Democrat, said she is “deeply concerned this administration is undermining the foundation of the USDA’s scientific research mission.”
She called the decision to relocate “haphazard” and said it would “hamper (USDA’s) capacity to support farmers, families, and rural communities for years to come. And for what? It is still unclear to me what problem the USDA is trying to solve with this move.”
Stabenow noted that employees are being told to move by Sept. 30 even though the department has not identified permanent offices for the agencies. USDA plans to have employees share office space in Kansas City with the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency until permanent space — which has yet to be chosen — is ready for occupancy. That could take a year, according to USDA bid documents.
Hutchins said the department is moving aggressively to hire replacements for employees who will not be relocating to Kansas City. “We will welcome six brand-new ERS employees to Kansas City this coming Monday,” he said.
There are five current job listings on usajobs.gov for ERS positions, including announcements for ag economists and a research nutritionist.
Asked whether employees could telework until permanent space is ready in Kansas City, Hutchins said that would be a topic for negotiations between the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents ERS and NIFA employees, and the department. The two sides will meet Friday for the first time.
According to a report from E&E News, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., says Perdue was willing to work with employees who want to telecommute before moving to Kansas City.
Stabenow and Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., brought up examples of employees who are leaving ERS and taking their institutional knowledge with them, including Catherine Greene, who has specialized in organic farming in her more than 30 years with ERS.
“Catherine Greene is unable to relocate to Kansas City,” Casey said. “Further, three of the young economists she has trained for several years have resigned instead.”
“We would love for Catherine to join us if she could,” Hutchins said, but added he did not know how much expertise in the organic area has been lost because of the move.
“I never suggested we would not lose expertise,” he said in answer to questioning by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar. Hutchins also said of the percentage of employees electing to move, “The numbers were not at all unexpected.”
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