WASHINGTON, D.C. — Staffing shortages might cause short- and long-term problems for farmers across the country.
Two USDA agencies, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS), have now officially moved from Washington to Kansas City, but not all of their employees chose to make the trip. Considering this on top of staffing shortages already in place across the USDA – a Congressional hearing earlier this year indicated the agency was staffed at about 90 percent – and training time needed for new employees, and some in the agriculture community and Congress are expressing concern.
“With over 75 percent of reassigned employees opting not to relocate, on top of already high vacancy rates, the relocation has left these agencies with little ability to do their important work,” Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry state in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.
She added that implementation of the farm bill has been affected. NIFA grants have not been awarded for the Specialty Crops Research Initiative, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and more.
At the ERS, reports maybe delayed or shortened, such as the monthly season average commodity price forecasts used by the World Agriculture Outlook Board and farmers to help manage their price risk, she wrote.
The move was supposed to be completed by Sept. 30, but some staff asked to move have been given extended employment in Washington for now. Stabenow’s office said those employees chose not to relocate, but staffing shortages caused the USDA to extend their positions in the nation’s capital.
When contacted, a USDA spokesperson said as of Sept. 30, ERS has 15 new employees and 16 relocated employees in Kansas City, with 74 permanently remaining in Washington. An additional 38 employees may relocate at a future date.
Also as of Sept. 30, NIFA has four new employees and 45 relocated employees, with 19 permanent employees in Washington and 22 still there who might relocate later.
“In addition to these relocating employees and new hires, both agencies are utilizing short-term contractor support and employees on detail from other agencies as a part of the (USDA’s) strategy to help ensure mission continuity through the transition. Additionally, we have well over 100 active recruitments in process between both agencies,” the spokesperson said.
They said the ERS is on track to complete mandated and calendared projects. NIFA is conducting five peer-reviewed panels through the month of October and moving forward with operations.
“We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies. The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
Land-grant universities and other stakeholders are assisting with staffing needs by hosting job fairs. The positions are also posted on the USAJobs website.
The move was announced a year ago, when Perdue said research was being conducted into the best location for the agencies. Relocation is said to save about $20 million per year that could be used to fund more research. The cost of living in Washington is also high, and the move may attract different employees not interested in living there.
An ERS memo was leaked to Politico that discusses the impact of the move, the normal activities that will be delayed, and what will be discontinued as a result.
On the list of reports that need to be peer-reviewed or cleared are a report on U.S. agricultural exports to China; the changing composition of U.S. ag trade with Canada and Mexico; evaluating USDA long-run forecasts; U.S. competition for Southeast Asia dairy imports; consolidation of U.S. dairy farms; SNAP impacts on rural and urban economies in the aftermath of the Great Recession; cover crop trends and practices in the United States; trends in organic production; and marketing in the U.S.
Aaron Shier, a government relations representative for the National Farmers Union, said it is difficult to imagine that a 75 percent loss of trained staff will not impact production. There are short- and long-term impacts to the problems at ERS and NIFA. Short-term issues include the funding concerns for farm bill programs, he said; long-term impacts are harder to measure.
The delay in releasing ERS outlook reports could put reporting out of sync with markets, which would affect farmers relaying on the data, he said.
“Concerning delays at NIFA, the issue has more to do with getting funding out the door on time. NIFA funds public agriculture research, which is key to ensuring the long-term competitiveness of American agriculture, and thus is important for the success of American farmers and ranchers.”
Some areas of ag research are focused on new technology or innovation, but some of the research is for maintenance issues, Shier said – like staying ahead of evolving pests and diseases or climate concerns. If those research programs are not funded, farmers may face years of trying to catch up with the problems.
Permanent offices for the agencies in Kansas City have not yet been selected.