Backlash delays plans to move USDA research agencies

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 10, 2018

The Department of Agriculture said today it would delay part of its plan to relocate two research agencies out of the nation’s capital, following backlash from some stakeholders.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he would extend by 30 days, until Oct. 15, the deadline for universities and localities to express interest in housing the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service.

“There has been considerable interest in housing the headquarters of NIFA and ERS, expressed by universities and localities from around the country,” Perdue said in a news release.

“Some stakeholders have relayed concerns about staff summer vacation schedules interfering with the preparation of proposals, and some have asked for more time to have their plans approved by boards of regents, city councils, or other governing bodies,” he said. “An extra 30 days will give everyone time to get organized and will not interfere with our timeline.”

The decision came on the heels of letters from farm groups, universities and lawmakers expressing concern about the rapid pace of USDA’s plans.

More than 100 stakeholders, including the Ohio Farm Bureau, National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, wrote to congressional appropriators and Agriculture committee leaders yesterday, asking them to use an agriculture spending bill for fiscal 2019 to block the proposed move of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“With only 30 days for interested parties to submit bids for the new location, this rapid timeframe has left the research stakeholder community little time to digest the implications of relocating NIFA,” they wrote.

USDA should take public comment before proceeding, the groups said, adding that they had asked the department to extend by 60 days its search for a new location for NIFA. The department has said it expects the moves to be completed next year.

Their letter follows a similar one from Democrats on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee to Perdue, asking for additional information on the plan and expressing concern about the impact on employee morale.

“It worries us to hear reports that USDA’s reorganization announcement has jeopardized morale not only in the two affected agencies, but also across the Department as employees wonder whether other agencies will also be relocated,” said the lawmakers, led by Agriculture Subcommittee ranking member Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.). “We hope that you will seek input from USDA employees as you consider future Department decisions.”

Perdue announced the move in August, along with a realignment of the Economic Research Service and a move for some of its employees. About 400 NIFA employees would be affected, the department said (Greenwire, Aug. 10).

Perdue said USDA aims to put employees closer to the rural customers they serve and to save money. He also cited challenges recruiting employees to Washington, with its high cost of living and long commutes.

In their letter, groups said public land-grant universities might feel obligated, with the short time frame, to express an interest in having NIFA located near their institutions, even if they disagree with the concept.

In addition, they said, university administrators might worry that if they express concerns about the department’s plans, USDA will rule out their states as potential locations. That puts administrators in an “impossible position,” they said.