Land-grant research that helps farmers could suffer if USDA moves its economics and grant-making units out of the nation’s capital, university leaders said Wednesday during a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing.
“I haven’t actually talked to another scientist that actually thinks this is a good move,” said William Tracy, a University of Wisconsin agronomy professor.
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed the move last year for the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, saying the change of scenery would help attract high-caliber staff, save taxpayer money, and bring the agencies closer to stakeholders.
If those stakeholders are farmers, that reasoning doesn’t make sense, said Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida.
Unlike the Farm Service Agency, which has service centers across the country, the agencies on the moving truck don’t often deal directly with farmers.
Instead, they work with the land-grant universities and other research agencies that do work with farmers, Payne said.
“Even if NIFA and ERS were in Indiana, I wouldn’t interact with them regularly,” said Elizabeth Brownlee, a farmer in the state and president of the Hoosier Young Farmer Coalition.
While the relocation would bring the agencies closer to researchers in the new host state, most other universities would likely be inconvenienced.
Land-grant leaders frequently go to Washington to meet with the federal departments that fund their research — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, even the Defense Department — in addition to USDA.
NIFA helps bring those agencies together.
“We’ve solved the easy problems in agriculture. In today’s world, we’re working on complex challenges that require multiple disciplines working together on solutions,” Payne said.
Under the relocation plan, researchers would have to visit NIFA in its new city, and still go back to Washington to meet with all the other agencies.
And wherever NIFA lands, it probably won’t be as convenient to fly there as Washington is, Tracy said.
After more than 100 groups submitted bids, USDA has winnowed the relocation options down to the North Carolina Research Triangle, Kansas City, and the state of Indiana.
Many researchers would perceive the land-grant institution in the winning state as having an inside track for funding, even though the agency’s grantmakers would likely remain impartial, Tracy said.
Critics have also argued the relocation is designed to shrink the department by attrition.
While the agencies have reportedly lost staff and morale since the move was announced, Perdue has argued the agencies will be better positioned to attract talent outside expensive, congested Washington.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., touted her home state’s abundance of people with advanced degrees in agriculture, high quality of life, and low cost of living.
“When I talk to folks back home, most everybody agrees that the farther you are away from Washington, D.C., the better off you are,” said Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, wasn’t impressed. There doesn’t seem to be much support for the move outside the states still vying for the agencies, she said.
“We should be fully staffing agencies, not increasing staffing losses through misguided relocations,” she said.
House Democrats have introduced a bill that would force USDA’s research agencies to stay in the capital region.
But Dunn said the current language would force a major relocation of its own, pushing other USDA research agencies out of their regional offices and into Washington.
He also questioned Democrats’ “obsession” with relocation as opposed to issues more pressing to farmers.
“In this Congress, we’ve consistently seen that if the president and his team propose something, the majority will automatically oppose it, and this topic seldom seems to matter,” Dunn said.