USDA should have planned better for staff attrition when it moved the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City,  in 2019, the Government Accountability Office says in a new report that notes the department “minimally involved employees, Congress, and other key stakeholders in relocating the agencies.”

The controversial moves during the Trump administration were vocally opposed by many employees and outside groups that said USDA had not adequately justified its decision. GAO said although the size of the agencies’ workforce and their productivity “had largely recovered” two years after the move, ERS and NIFA staff at that point “was composed mostly of new employees with less experience at ERS and NIFA than the prior workforce.”

In addition, GAO said “a decline in the number of employees in certain protected groups persisted." Black staff at NIFA, GAO specifically noted, dropped from 47% to 19%.

GAO recommended that for future potential agency moves, ERS and NIFA follow “leading practices on agency reforms, such as documenting performance measures and enhancing employee engagement.” Both agencies also should “more fully follow leading practices for diversity management, such as developing a strategy for sustaining diversity and inclusion and documenting ongoing succession and recruiting planning processes.”

In a response to the proposed report, REE Undersecretary Chavonda Jacobs-Young said USDA “generally agrees with GAO’s findings” but said both agencies had “largely recovered in terms of size and productivity by the end of fiscal 2021” and “we’ve continued to make strides to ensure that we have reached or exceeded staffing levels at both agencies as compared to pre-relocation.”

Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of Agri-Pulse by clicking on our link!   

At the end of fiscal 2021, ERS had 246 employees, down from 273 at the end of fiscal 2018, before the move. NIFA also had 246 employees, down from the previous 288. Staffing as of June 2022 was 285 at ERS and 323 at NIFA, "comparable to, or higher than, staff levels at the end of fiscal year 2018," GAO said.

Because of the relocation, NIFA took longer to process grants. As of March 2020, 649 competitive grants had been funded for fiscal 2019, about 53% of the 1,235 applications. GAO said those figures were “the lowest number and percentage for any fiscal year since fiscal year 2015. This slower processing time coincided with the loss of staff that occurred in fiscal years 2019 and 2020.”

At the time of the move, Sonny Perdue, then the Trump administration's ag secretary, justified the move by saying it would save taxpayers money on employment costs and rent and would benefit agriculture by moving the agencies closer to stakeholders such as farmers and land-grant universities.

An April 2022 report by GAO, however, said “USDA’s economic analysis did not fully align with its stated objectives for relocating ERS and NIFA and that USDA’s development and usage of evidence underlying its decision had significant limitations.”

For more news, go to