Land-grant universities, others concerned about ERS, NIFA leaving Washington
August 20, 2018
Opposition is growing to the Trump administration's proposal to move the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the Washington metropolitan area.
Orlando McMeans, chair of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Board on Agriculture Assembly (BAA) and vice president for research and public service at West Virginia State University, said Friday that the board is concerned with the proposed move.
"In particular, moving NIFA — the premier agricultural science entity in the world and the linchpin of the 156-year agricultural research, education, and extension partnership between the federal government and the land-grant university system — raises important questions that need to be addressed before further executive action is taken," McMeans said.
Also on Friday, The Daily Yonder compiled statements from other groups asking USDA to release its analysis of the cost savings that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said would come from moving more than 600 jobs somewhere other than the Washington area.
The Daily Yonder said that ERS's Rural America at a Glance and Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America are "standard references in the field of rural policy" and questioned whether they would continue to be produced as reliable sources of information.
David Lipsetz of the Housing Assistance Council said "ERS' main customers are congressional members and staff; USDA policy officials; and researchers at rural-focused groups like the (Housing Assistance Council) or the agriculture and food industry associations."
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"We already work in a system built to lift suburban and urban interests," Lipsetz said.
"Moving ERS out of D.C. is yet another way rural voices will be out of earshot. Rural communities already struggle to have their voices heard. Why make it any harder for their representatives in D.C. to impact federal policy-making?"
Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, said "We are deeply troubled that, like his decision to eliminate the undersecretary for rural development, Secretary Perdue has proposed major changes at (USDA) without any public input, including from farmers or rural residents."
"The secretary talks a lot about 'customer service,' but he should explain what 'customers' he consulted with in this latest re-organization," Lilliston said.
"The secretary claims there will be cost savings, but offers no estimates for how much. There is no clarity on where staff and agencies will move, how that decision will be made, or the costs associated with such a move."
Kenneth Johnson, Andrew Carnegie fellow and senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, said "Any actions which disrupt the important work of the ERS will have a detrimental effect on the people, places and institutions of rural America at a critical moment in American history."
Juli Obudzinski, deputy policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said, "Moving skilled USDA ERS and NIFA employees out of Washington, D.C., and under the supervision of the Office of the (Chief Economist) politicizes, and therefore fundamentally endangers, our country's capacity for agricultural research and development."
"The reasons provided for this decision are meritless: moving the agencies put them at risk for losing experienced, high-level employees; does nothing to improve the agencies' responsiveness to rural stakeholders; and in the end will cost taxpayers by reducing the productiveness of two hubs of national ag research," Obudzinski said.
"Plain and simple, this is not a move in service of improved ag research capacity, rural stakeholders, or taxpayers writ large — rather, it is a bold-faced move to restrict and control the dissemination of information, one that in the end will weaken our farmers' ability to compete at home and abroad."
But Jeffrey Dorfman, an economics professor at the University of Georgia, wrote in Forbes, "Economists are trained to study tradeoffs, to compare benefits and costs, to find policies that maximize social welfare by equating the changes in benefits and costs from policy changes."
"Whether dispersing federal workers more evenly around the country is a beneficial policy or not must be studied on a case-by-case basis and I don't claim to know the answer in the case of these two USDA agencies," Dorfman said. "However, it has been successful before and should not be criticized reflexively without some evidence to back up such opposition."