Agriculture Agencies Headed to the Heartland

By: - June 13, 2019 12:00 am

In a highly anticipated announcement, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Thursday that the Kansas City region will be the new headquarters for two U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies.

The 58-year-old Economic Research Service (ERS) analyzes agricultural and rural economics, and the grant-making National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) uses agricultural research to inform science policy decision-making.

They are the only two USDA agencies without a presence outside Washington, and the move puts them closer to agricultural producers, the department said. It also said the move will cut costs, improve its ability to recruit top talent — in part because of the lower cost of living in Kansas City — and boost the Kansas City economy.

“The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be a hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland,” Perdue said in a statement. He added that the move allows the agencies “to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.”

But critics, including the American Statistical Association, argue that these economists, scientists, statisticians and others belong in the center of federal power. They argue the move could potentially diminish the importance and influence of the agencies’ work at a critical time for the agricultural, food and rural economies by weakening crucial links with other D.C.-area research organizations within the government and private sectors.

The move comes amid ongoing arguments over decentralizing the federal government, including the FBI’s possible departure from the outdated building that takes up a full city block in downtown Washington. Some from both ends of the political spectrum have subscribed to the idea of dispersing the federal government to shift wealth from the East Coast to economically depressed areas.

ERS economists have argued that the Trump administration orchestrated their D.C. exit after their work on sensitive issues, such as the financial harm of President Donald Trump’s trade policies to farmers, cast the administration in a negative light.

NIFA employees have similarly called the move unjustified. Two days before Thursday’s announcement, they voted 137-2 to unionize.

“Not only were stakeholders entirely cut out of this process, they were blindsided by the announcement from USDA last August,” U.S. Rep. Stacey Plaskett, a Virgin Islands Democrat and chairwoman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, said in opening remarks during a June 5 hearing, where no witnesses spoke in support of the move. “And to date, the actual benefits to ag research or an economic analysis of this proposal have not been conveyed.”

The House and Senate have taken steps to block the relocation, including not providing any funding, a decision supported by dozens of academic, statistical, research and producer groups. But the relocation may progress before the House appropriations bill for fiscal 2020 USDA funding becomes law.

The Kansas City region was picked over the North Carolina Research Triangle area and multiple locations in Indiana for the new headquarters.

The Department of Agriculture was offered more than million in relocation incentive packages from state and local governments, according to the agency.

The move is expected to save the department about million a year, or nearly million over a 15-year lease, in employment and rent costs, according to the department’s analysis.

Tim Cowden, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, which submitted a proposal in support of the move, called the agencies the “crown jewels” of the USDA.

“It’s a significant win for the Kansas City region,” Cowden said. “Any time 500-plus well-paid scientific and other high-level jobs are added into the economy, it will provide a noticeable boost.”

Cowden empathized with the stress employees may face in planning their moves but expects the transplants to enjoy their new home base.

“People come to Kansas City and they’re absolutely blown away by what a wonderful community this is,” Cowden said.

Local Impact

The move comes during a steady erosion of the federal workforce in the Washington region, which is down about 25,000 jobs from 2010, said Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region’s Economic Future at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.

The nearly 550 employees slated to move to the new headquarters — 253 from ERS and 294 from NIFA — make up about 0.15% of the 360,000-person federal workforce in the Washington region.

The relocated employees would take an estimated million from the region’s economy, an insignificant figure considering the Washington area’s half-a-trillion-dollar economy, Fuller said.

The jobs won’t be as valuable to smaller economies like the Kansas City region, because employees may look elsewhere for desired services, Fuller said.

“It’s an agglomeration effect,” Fuller said. “That’s why we put up with all the congestion in Washington, because you can find anything you need.”

In addition, the move will cause attrition. In April, six ERS economists quit in one day, according to news reports. In a June 5 letter to Perdue and Emily Murphy, administrator of the General Services Administration, several senators noted that by the USDA’s own estimates, the two agencies will lose half of their staff.

Once these agencies leave, it wouldn’t be cost-effective to bring them back, Fuller said.

“There’s probably not a good reason to do it other than political, and it does have a cost,” Fuller said.

‘King of Pork’

If there’s any one leader known for moving federal agencies outside of Washington, it’s the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia.

The “King of Pork” dotted the Mountain State with bureaucracy. Most notably, he seized on the opportunity to centralize the fingerprint division of the FBI and bring a facility and more than a thousand jobs to Clarksburg, West Virginia. Controversy soon followed.

“West Virginia is very much a stereotype place, and it has been for a long time,” said Jay Wyatt, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. “The idea of being a member of the FBI or the Forest Service — highly educated, uber professional — and basically having your life picked up and relocated to a place where the access to resources is different, or seemingly limited, didn’t really sit well.”

But Clarksburg is one of the few places in West Virginia that’s developed over the past 20 years, Wyatt said. The old industrial town offers shopping, new housing and a state-of-the-art hospital. As technology developed, the FBI built a biometric facility adjacent to its existing building. Together, they take up about a thousand acres.

Clarksburg is like an “island in a very poor state,” said Ray Smock, a former director for the Byrd Center and historian with the U.S. House.

Oral histories indicate Byrd didn’t dictate the moves, but instead seized on opportunities, such as agencies looking to expand, Smock and Wyatt said.  

Moving federal agencies outside of Washington can bring economic and social stability to areas that have lacked institutions and resources. While the areas that were vying to be home to the USDA agencies aren’t as needy as West Virginia, the new headquarters can still be agents of change, the historians said. That’s why Byrd pushed for his.

“He didn’t make this a shining city on the hill, but he kept the state somewhat diversified with opportunities for the future,” Smock said.

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.