The internal memo only confirmed what unofficial Washington had been saying for more than a year and what official Washington had been downplaying for even longer: The White House plan to move two U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies to Kansas City will severely cripple USDA data collection, handcuff policymakers who depend on the data and analysis, and gut both agencies for years to come.
The move, which became reality on Sept. 30, was proposed by USDA boss Sonny Perdue a year ago as, he repeatedly explained, a cost-saving way to both streamline government and put USDA agencies “closer to our customers.”
The explanation, like the move itself, never made sense. The main customers of one of the agencies to be moved, the Economic Research Service, or ERS, are ag policymakers on Capitol Hill just four museums, two statues and one reflecting pool east of USDA’s office.
The key customers of the other agency Perdue targeted, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, are Land Grant universities and government, private, and non-profit research institutions literally scattered across Congressional districts from sea to shining sea.
The leaked memo, drafted by USDA “department management for planning purposes,” reported Politico on Sept. 24, proved the emptiness of Perdue’s words. The “mass attrition” at ERS alone, noted Politico, “will lead to ‘significant delays’ in vital research reports.”
That’s a setback, not an improvement, in customer service, Mr. Secretary. (Read the memo at farmandfoodfile.com.)
Moreover, Politico continued, the memo “outlines how widely the agency’s work will be paralyzed as a result of the relocation.”
Paralyzed is too mild a word for what will happen to ERS from now through December. “USDA identified 38 specific reports that may be delayed because staff members” — who were either unable or unwilling to move from Washington to Kansas City by Sept. 30 — “have departed.”
Laura Dodson, an ERS staff researcher who will remain in Washington, said she would be surprised if that number doesn’t rise. “You walk into the building,” Dodson noted in an Oct. 1 interview, “and only one desk out of every 10 seem to have anyone at it. No one is here to finish anything.”
Dodson knows the exact number of employees ERS has lost to Perdue’s “customer” purge because she also serves as acting vice president of the local federal government employee union that represents ERS employees.
“By my latest estimate,” she reports, “16 people have moved to Kansas City, 24 will remain in DC until they must either quit or move by December 9, and 141 have quit since June 15.”
That means of ERS’s 181 employees on June 15, nine percent have moved to Kansas City, 13 percent temporarily remain in Washington, and 78 percent have quit. That’s a staggering loss of unique talent that, Dodson reckons, could not be recaptured in at least a decade even if Perdue reversed course today.
Besides, she adds, “Who wants to work for an employer that doesn’t value its staff?”
The same backward thinking was applied to saving money, Dodson says. ERS’s total budget, $86 million, “is a rounding error in USDA’s budget” of $156 billion in 2019. As such, “This entire process has just felt fake from the start. It’s not been done with any eye or plan that allows the agency to thrive and serve U.S. agriculture.”
Some of the reports that face “significant delays” due to a slowing “peer review” process—more like stopped, explains Dodson: “There aren’t any peers left for reviews.”—are in areas farmers, ranchers, and ag firms deem critical. Topics include “U.S. Agricultural Exports to Regions in China,” “The Changing Composition of U.S. Ag Trade with Canada and Mexico,” and “Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming.”
Then again, given Secretary Sonny’s remark Oct. 1 in Wisconsin on how “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” maybe the White House doesn’t need any science, market data or economic analysis to find and implement fixes for today’s woeful markets.
Of course, according to USDA’s chief, if you’re big enough you’ll make it; if you’re not, well, you’re going to have to move.
How’s Kansas City sound to you?
Alan Guebert is an award-winning agricultural journalist and expert who was raised on a 720-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. He began the syndicated agriculture column “The Farm and Food File” in 1993 and it now appears weekly in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. He can be reached at farmandfoodfile.com.