USDA has selected the Kansas City, Missouri, region as the new location for the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the agency announced in a news release on Thursday.

The announcement comes after employees at NIFA voted overwhelmingly earlier this week to form a union through the American Federation of Government Employees to oppose the move by USDA. ERS employees also voted to affiliate with AFGE

“Following a rigorous site selection process, the Kansas City region provides a win-win — maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes, and extraordinary living for our employees,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

“The Kansas City region has proven itself to be hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland. There is already a significant presence of USDA and federal government employees in the region, including the Kansas City ‘Ag Bank’ Federal Reserve. This agriculture talent pool, in addition to multiple land-grant and research universities within driving distance, provides access to a stable labor force for the future. The Kansas City region will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.”

The agency said in the news release it conducted a cost-benefit analysis, finding a cost savings of $300 million during a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent, or about $20 million per year.

The move is expected to “allow more funding for research of critical needs like rural prosperity and agricultural competitiveness, and for programs and employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.”

USDA said in the news release that state and local governments offered a relocation package totaling more than $26 million.

“We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies,” Perdue said.

“The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run. We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. In addition, we are increasing the probability of attracting highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”

The agency said all USDA employees received a letter from Perdue on Thursday morning, and an all-hands meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. EDT Thursday with ERS and NIFA employees to discuss the decision.

In addition, USDA announced it was not moving forward with a realignment of ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist.

“While we believe there is considerable synergies and benefits to a realignment, after hearing feedback from stakeholders and members of Congress, USDA will not move forward with the realignment plans,” the agency said.

According to USDA, 294 of NIFA’s 315 positions will relocate, while 21 will stay in the National Capital region. Of the 329 ERS positions, 253 will relocate while 76 will remain in Washington, D.C.

“As a result of this move, no ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated,” the agency said. “Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said his group continues to stand against the move, for fear it could “undermine the integrity” of the agencies’ research efforts.

“Family farmers and ranchers wear dozens of hats — in addition to growing food, they are also business owners, scientists, marketers, and technicians,” he said.

“Mastering all these drastically different skills requires access to objective, science-based solutions — and it requires evidence-based policies that support those solutions. Moving NIFA and ERS farther away from our nation’s capital, as the USDA intends to do, could negatively impact the ability of these agencies to produce and fund high-quality research and communicate with legislators, which could, in turn, make it that much more difficult to be a farmer.

“We are extremely frustrated that our serious concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Even in light of all of these possible repercussions, USDA is barreling forward with this ill-conceived plan. Their slapdash approach has already disrupted operations and eroded morale at both NIFA and ERS. Before additional damage is done, we strongly urge Congress to act swiftly to put an end to this destructive relocation and reorganization.”

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Source: Todd Neeley, DTN