Federal Farm Research Offices Set To Move From D.C. To Kansas City

Jun 13, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 2:47 pm

(This story was updated at 5:15 p.m.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans Thursday to move headquarters of two large research agencies from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area, promising the region more than 550 research jobs.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said the move offers an economic boost to the region.

“Today’s decision further bolsters Kansas City’s status as a national leader in the ag industry,” he said in a news release. “It is always positive when our government can operate outside of Washington and closer to the people it serves.”

USDA officials had been pondering the shift for more than a year, angling to save money and anchoring researchers in the Grain Belt closer to the farmers and ranchers who rely heavily on the reports produced by the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The effort to bring the agencies to Kansas City stood out because congressional delegations from both Kansas and Missouri worked together to land the plum federal jobs.

USDA has yet to select a specific location for the two agencies in the Kansas City area. The department is looking at existing office space on both sides of the state line, according to Kansas City Area Development Council president Tim Cowden. It plans to have a location by the fall.

The move would add to Kansas City’s role as a regional hub for federal agencies. It would also pump up university, government and private animal health research in the region.

Kimberly Young is president of KC Animal Health Corridor, a research cluster stretching across 22 counties from Kansas State University in Manhattan to the University of Missouri in Columbia. She said the move cements the region’s role in animal health research.

“It … makes Kansas City the epicenter for animal health and agriculture,” she said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, including all of the GOP members of the House Agriculture Committee, backed the move as a way to save taxpayer dollars. Democrats have, broadly speaking, been more skeptical about whether the two agencies could continue to draw talent to jobs in the Midwest.

Some career USDA workers in Washington have cast the relocation as retaliation for reports that challenged some assumptions baked into Trump administration policies.

The agencies’ findings have sometimes run counter to Trump administration political policy.

The Economic Research Service, or ERS, collects and crunches numbers on everything from how much corn syrup Americans consume to how tariffs affect farmers.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, funds research. Among other things, that research closely tracks climate change.

The Trump administration has proposed three budgets so far, and all three called for deep cuts to the ERS and NIFA.

USDA surprised employees at the agencies last summer when it first announced the relocation. They complained that the plan was drawn up without input from staff, and that it was being rushed by USDA leadership.

Some researchers view it as an attempt to cull the agencies. Top researchers are in demand. Many are married to other academics with lucrative careers in the Washington area. Dozens of ERS and NIFA employees have already resigned in advance of the move. Both agencies have recently unionized in an effort to slow or stop the relocation. 

Some Democrats are trying to block the move with legislation blocking funding for the relocation.

The agencies enjoy bipartisan support. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he strongly supports both the move and the work done by NIFA and ERS.

“Agriculture research is a critical function of the Department of Agriculture, and I am committed, as well as the rest of the committee, to support and ensure our research mission that our US producers can rely on,” said Roberts in a recorded video released yesterday.

Kansas City area development officials will do their best to roll out the red carpet for ERS and NIFA employees considering making the move.

Young said researchers can expect help finding housing and job placement services for their spouses. 

Frank Morris is a national correspondent at KCUR and contributor to Harvest Public Media. Reach him on Twitter @franknewsman.

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