USDA sends jobs back to the heartland, but not without a ruckus

It’s never easy to pick up from a place where you really enjoy living and working. 

I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for my grandparents—who lost their farm during the Great Depression—to drive across country from Iowa to California to find work. Some of my relatives from North Dakota couldn’t find work in the late 1960s and headed to Alaska—where they found good jobs and settled down to raise families. 

As one of them said to me recently, “We went where the work was and never looked back.” 

In 1995, I made a tough call when I was living on a lake in Missouri but was offered an incredible job in the Chicago area. My husband was able to relocate fairly easily, and our children were young enough that they weren’t yet anchored to a school. Still, I can’t remember how many times I worried about whether this was the right decision for my family.

With this as a background, it’s been interesting to watch the reaction from U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who have been told that they will have to relocate from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City. For those of you not familiar with this process, Secretary Sonny Perdue had announced that he was considering a move for the employees of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Several cities and regions submitted bids and USDA narrowed it down to three: The Kansas City area (where USDA already has several offices) multiple locations in Indiana, and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. In a final decision last week, Perdue picked the Kansas City area. 

The research community and several lawmakers thought a bomb had literally dropped. Several suggested that there were other motives for the move.

USDA has not made a compelling case for moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside of Washington, D.C., two ag scientists and a farmer recently told a House Agriculture subcommittee. 

“I believe that the proposed relocation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the relocation and reorganization of the Economic Research Service will diminish our agricultural research capacity at one of the most critical times in U.S. agriculture in recent history,” University of Wisconsin agronomist William Tracy told the House Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research.

Perdue tried to sell the Kansas City region as an attractive new home for employees of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture at an “all-hands” meeting last week to brief those agencies’ employees. But some weren’t buying it.

As soon as he took his place behind the podium in USDA’s Jefferson Auditorium, between 15 and 20 people stood and turned their backs to Perdue. Before the meeting, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents ERS employees and will represent NIFA employees who recently voted to unionize, had circulated a flier urging employees to do so as a way of conveying “forcefully, yet respectfully, that the staff of ERS and NIFA are near-unanimously opposed to his relocation plans.”

In announcing the decision, USDA referenced a savings of $300 million over 15 years in rent and salaries, money that would be plowed back into research and hiring.

In his remarks, the secretary quoted extensively from the letter he already had transmitted to USDA employees Thursday morning, outlining the benefits of living in the Kansas City area.

“Kansas City has commute times that are among the shortest in the U.S.,” he said. It has a “low cost of living, with high quality, affordable housing,” and said that where a 3,000-square-foot home in the D.C. area would cost about $1 million, the same-sized home would be about $318,000 in Kansas City.

“The schools in Kansas City are excellent,” he said. “The city is extremely livable.” Perdue mentioned the food scene, arts and other cultural and family-oriented opportunities.

“I’m proud to work alongside you,” Perdue said near the end of his brief remarks, adding, “Moving out of the capital area in no way lessens your importance. You are all part of the USDA family.” He left without taking questions.

Employees, however, do not yet know where their offices will be located. The General Services Administration is currently working on finding office space. “We have not determined which side of the [Missouri] River we’re going to be on,” Perdue said on a teleconference with reporters after the meeting.

ERS and NIFA employees have been told they will have until July 15 to decide whether they want to move. They can move to the new location as early as July, but USDA wants to have everyone relocated by Sept. 30.

Scott Hutchins, deputy undersecretary of the Research, Education and Economics mission area in the department, spoke after Perdue, saying meetings will be held over the next couple of weeks to fill in details of the relocation.

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According to a slide posted during the meeting, “If you accept the reassignment offer, Kansas City has agreed to establish a special concierge service for USDA whereby they will work personally with you in Kansas City to make connections with the people, resources and services relevant to your situation.”

Hutchins also did not take questions, saying details about relocation dates would be provided to employees by email.

After the meeting, employees said the 10-month process since Perdue proposed the relocation in August, has been difficult.

“It’s just tough on everybody, I think,” said one ERS employee who asked not to be named. “The stress of waiting, not knowing.”

Another said employees had not been informed by USDA until Thursday morning that the relocation announcement would be that day.

Another employee said simply, “It’s pathetic” as she left the auditorium.

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at Agri-Pulse Associate Editor Steve Davies contributed to this report.