House Ag Democrats signal new strategy on ERS, NIFA |

House Ag Democrats signal new strategy on ERS, NIFA

-The Hagstrom Report
Scott Hutchins, the Agriculture deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, testifies before a House Agriculture subcommittee on Oct. 17.
Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report

Members of a key House agriculture subcommittee signaled on Oct. 17 that they are still upset about the Trump administration’s decision to move most of the employees in the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture away from Washington, but they are now focused on making sure the agencies continue to do their jobs.

The Trump administration moved the positions to the Kansas City area, and many longtime ERS and NIFA employees chose not to move. Democrats on Capitol Hill protested the plans, but Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue went ahead with it and employees had to tell USDA by Sept. 30 if they would move or leave.

House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research Chair Stacey Plaskett, the delegate from the Virgin Islands, noted at the beginning of a hearing on implementation of the research title of the 2014 farm bill that she learned in a briefing this week that “ERS has appropriated funding to support 329 employees, but currently, a total of 214 positions are vacant — a vacancy rate of 65%.”

“To put it bluntly, NIFA is in even worse shape. Out of 344 appropriated positions, 264 are currently vacant — a vacancy rate over 76%. I was told these extreme staff shortages mean some grant recipients will not receive their funds until March 2020.”

Plaskett said “these gaps in service reinforce the notion that this relocation was hurried, misguided and mismanaged”

But she told the sole witness at the hearing, Scott Hutchins, the Agriculture deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, ”as subcommittee chair, I expect ERS and NIFA to quickly be restored to their former prominence.”

“Dr. Hutchins, the members of this subcommittee are looking to you and Secretary Perdue to work expeditiously and deliberately to prevent further gaps in service. This must be a top priority for you and Secretary Perdue, and I expect to see tangible results rather than hear lip service. If results are not delivered and programs continue to suffer, we will continue this discussion in the future.”

Hutchins acknowledged that the agencies are short staffed and that some reports would be late, but he said that USDA has rehired some employees on a short-term basis and is allowing some employees to continue to work in Washington for up to six months.

USDA is also speeding up its hiring process and has received 400 applications for some jobs for which it traditionally received only 60 applications.

Hutchins said he had visited the temporary office building in Kansas City to which the employees in both agencies have moved, that all the employees are happy to be there, and that they showed him pictures of the new homes they have been able to afford “including a six-acre horse farm” that the family would never have been able to buy in the Washington area.

Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., the ranking member on the subcommittee who had earlier said “It’s frustrating to hear my colleagues continue to decry every move made by this administration,” told Hutchins, “We are happy they are happy because happy scientists do better research.”

Hutchins also told Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., whose district includes Cornell University, that when grants are delayed USDA is trying to work with the university to deal with any problematic gaps in funding.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., also said that members of Congress want the ERS and NIFA employees “to pick up the phone in Kansas City because their work is vital.” Panetta also said the committee will hold the agencies “accountable as well.”

In his testimony, Hutchins said that the Trump administration is “fully committed to supporting research that ensures U.S. producers will be able to adapt to changes in climate and continue to develop and advocate for a wide range of sustainable intensification practices,” using terminology that some Trump administration officials and congressional Republicans have avoided.

Perhaps in reaction to articles questioning the administration’s willingness to publicize climate change research and to help farmers adapt to climate change, Hutchins said, “For example, ERS researchers recently published a study that examined the potential effects of climate change on risk management. USDA has no policy, no practice, and no intent to minimize, discredit, de-emphasize, or otherwise influence the rigorous climate-based science of any agency or partner institution.”

“We support the work done by our scientists in this area of our research. Tools such as USDA’s Climate Hubs and the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network communicate climate research directly to the producers these changes most directly impact. Additionally, the National Climate Hub coordinator compiles a quarterly report that provides information on publications, outreach events and technical support.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she was “pleased you would come into this room and say ‘climate change,’” but that USDA needs to do more work beyond the role of forestry in addressing the issue. She noted that Maine is a state with big forests, but said other aspects of agriculture also need climate and resilience research.

In some cases Hutchins’s answers to questions were surprising.

When Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said he was pleased with the effort to “go West, young man,” and asked if any other agencies could be moved, perhaps as far west as California, Hutchins said he had “not done any kind of analysis in that regard” and pointed out that the headquarters of ERS and NIFA would stay in Washington.

He also noted that commodity analysts prepare congressionally mandated reports and that it is also important for the USDA agencies to maintain connections with other government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

Hutchins testified that formula grants to land-grant universities are vital for basic research and extension infrastructure.

But when Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said that Murray State University in Kentucky, which is not a land-grant university, is on the “cutting edge” of hemp research and that the non-land grant institutions don’t get much funding from USDA in comparison to the land-grant institutions, Hutchins said that a “a lot of discoveries” are coming from outside the land-grant institutions and that it might be appropriate to rethink the funding.

Dunn told Hutchins that even though the 2018 farm bill told the Agriculture Department to eliminate the difference between the number of years that the 1860s land-grant institutions and the 1890s institutions are allowed to carry over funds, USDA has not yet implemented that change and that the subcommittee will be monitoring that policy.