Would a closer USDA research agency really help farmers?

A majority of U.S. farmers live and work far afield from Washington, D.C., one of the reasons that prompted leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin plans for moving its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside the capital.

But according to one farmer who spoke before the House Agriculture Committee June 5, closer to farmers might not be all that helpful in the case of research agencies.

“NIFA’s structure and location already work effectively for farmers like me,” said Elizabeth Brownlee, who operates Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, Indiana.

“Even if NIFA and ERS were in Indiana, I wouldn’t interact with them regularly. I need to be on my farm.”

Brownlee, like many other small farmers, is part of farmers coalitions and unions that advocate for their members’ interests in the U.S. capital. Such organizations interact with government researchers, oversight agencies and lawmakers.

According to Brownlee, those organizations must be located in Washington, D.C., to have access to lawmakers and agency leaders, and it would be too costly for them to set up offices in whichever new state NIFA and ERS are moved to.

Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida and administrative head of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, noted that neither of the USDA research agencies in question actually interface much with farmers anyway, but rather work with research laboratories and academic institutions that then work with farmers.

“I haven’t actually talked to another scientist who actually thinks this is a good move,” said William Tracy, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin Madison, adding that the research community may end up trusting the grant programs run by research agencies less if they’re moved to another location.

“If we move NIFA out of D.C. people will perceive bias, even if there is no favoritism, even if there is no change in how they do business. People are going to say, ‘They favor Wisconsin, because that’s where they are and where they do business.’”

Rep. Neil Dunn, R-Fla., noted that the high cost of living in Washington, D.C., may keep qualified professionals from filling the empty positions at the agency.

“It’s expensive to live and raise a family in this area. And USDA cited that as a fact as one of the biggest reasons of why it’s difficult to attract top talent,” said Dunn.

But Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, who was also concerned about staffing at ERS and NIFA coming in “well below their appropriated staff levels,” worried that moving the agencies would cause more employees to leave for other jobs, rather than move out of D.C. with the agency.

Employees at ERS voted overwhelmingly in May to join the American Federation of Government Employees while those at NIFA are expected to vote on the same issue in the near future. Joining a union entitles agency employees to advanced notice of any proposed changes to working conditions, such as a move, and the opportunity for the union to bargain in good faith over those changes.

Some members of Congress have also introduced legislation that would prevent the agency from executing the planned move.

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