Faced with criticism about delays in research reports and distribution of grant funding, a top USDA official defended the department’s decision to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to the Kansas City region at a congressional hearing Thursday.

Scott Hutchins, deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics, told the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research that USDA is ramping up hiring efforts to fill vacancies at ERS and NIFA, which moved to Kansas City officially on Sept. 30.

He also said USDA has offered extensions to employees who did not want to relocate to Kansas City and brought back retired employees in order to do the necessary work.

But Subcommittee Chair Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., said open positions at both agencies far exceed those currently filled.

“ERS has appropriated funding to support 329 employees, but currently, a total of 214 positions are vacant — a vacancy rate of 65%,” Plaskett said, adding that NIFA “is in even worse shape. Out of 344 appropriated positions, 264 are currently vacant,” or 76%.

Hutchins did not dispute those numbers but said — as the department has said since Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue surprised the ag research community in August 2018 by announcing the relocation — that a change in venue “ultimately will improve USDA’s ability to attract and consistently retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, as well as place these important USDA resources closer to many of our stakeholders.”

Plaskett, however, said Perdue had failed “to outline a clear, robust plan for how these agencies would prevent gaps in services” and said USDA’s relocation “was hurried, misguided, and mismanaged.”

The General Services Administration has yet to find new office space for the agencies, but Hutchins said staffers are working in the Beacon Complex, where Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency employees work in Kansas City, and that there is room to expand in that building.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat from upstate New York, said he was concerned about delays in disbursing research funds to Cornell University. “We do have a hill to climb in the short term,” Hutchins said, acknowledging delays in grant disbursements, but said USDA has committed to distributing fiscal 2019 funds to land-grant institutions by March 2020, two to three months later than they would normally go out.

NIFA is prioritizing the distribution of grants to 1890 and 1994 land-grant institutions — historically black and tribal colleges — that do not have as much ability to handle funding delays, Hutchins said.

After the hearing, a USDA spokesperson said, "As is standard practice, a due diligence effort and final review period continues into the next fiscal year before the awarded funds are released. The existence of delays and length of delays will be dependent upon the program and the type of award.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has opposed the relocation since it was announced, said she was concerned about delays in ERS research reports, mentioning in particular one on consolidation in the dairy industry.

A document prepared by ERS leadership said there would be “significant delays” in most research reports due to staff attrition, including reports on ag exports to China, food loss, honeybees, opioids, cover crops, trends in organic production and marketing, and one entitled, “Scenarios of Global Diets and the Impact on Land Resources.”

Hutchins received some support from Republican committee members for the relocations. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., said, “Being in the heartland, we are very excited about this move” and expressed confidence that the region can supply enough qualified economists and researchers to fill the vacant positions.

And Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., pushed for relocation of USDA personnel to California. Hutchins said he did not know of any efforts in the works to shift offices to that state.

In a video taped after the hearing, Plaskett said, “While many of us did not agree to the relocations, it has happened and so what we need to do is ensure there is vigilance and support to make sure the research is done, and information gets on the ground to farmers.”

Language in the House version of the ag spending bill for fiscal 2020 would prohibit spending any money on the relocations, but the Senate version of the spending bill has no such provision.

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