WASHINGTON -- The relocation of two Agriculture Department agencies out of the District of Columbia has delayed the publication of dozens of research reports, squelched early-stage studies and halted the release of millions of dollars in funding, USDA employees say.
At the direction of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, two scientific agencies -- the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service -- moved to Kansas City this summer. Employees at NIFA manage a $1.7 billion portfolio of science funding. ERS is a federal statistical agency whose experts study agricultural trade, farming and rural America.
Staff numbers at both agencies have plummeted since the relocation. At NIFA, the employees who approve the grant paperwork and release funds are gone. The publishing staff at ERS did not accept the reassignment to Kansas City. The flow of research and grants from these agencies has slowed, employees said, piled up behind the logjam of empty desks.
An internal ERS memo obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by Politico describes dozens of delayed ERS reports. Two USDA employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the document, confirmed the existence of this list, which was circulated among ERS managers in mid-September.
According to a statement last week from the USDA, "ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission-critical work throughout the transition, and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its mandated and calendared projects."
The nearly 40 delayed reports include studies into veterans' diets, honeybee health and the opioid epidemic. Other reports address obesity, international markets and organic foods. These studies are completed but unpublished. Other ERS projects, in earlier stages, have been abandoned.
Laura Dodson, an economist and acting vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, the union chapter that represents ERS employees, had been working on what was to be a two-year-long report on the herbicide dicamba. Soybean farmers use dicamba where weeds have developed resistance to another herbicide, glyphosate. But dicamba "has serious negative effects to neighboring farms who don't plant dicamba-resistant seeds," Dodson said. "It can essentially wipe out their whole crop."
ERS is "one of the few places, if not the only place right now, that has field-level data on dicamba drift issues," Dodson said. The scientists who would have been her co-authors left ERS. Dodson will be unable to complete the study alone.
At NIFA, program directors and grant reviewers ensured that unspent funds in danger of returning to the Treasury Department at the end of the fiscal year were successfully obligated, meaning the money has been designated for specific projects. But no staff remain at the agency who are able to approve the grant paperwork or authorize the funds' release.
As a result, tens of millions of dollars in approved grants are in limbo, set aside for recipients but unreleased. Funds for projects supported by NIFA's competitive grant program, the $400 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, also have been delayed.
Only about 70 of 224 NIFA employees eligible to relocate accepted the reassignment, according to an internal estimate, said Thomas Bewick, a NIFA employee and AFGE chapter vice president. Every worker who declined the reassignment was to be fired, but USDA extended some employees' contracts through March. According to the USDA statement, 38 employees at ERS and 22 employees at NIFA have "delayed relocation orders."
A head count of staff at ERS, conducted by the union, determined that 141 of 181 employees declined to move, Dodson said. Twenty-four people had their contracts extended. Sixteen accepted the reassignment.
"USDA is doing a bunch of different things to try to prevent us from going into mission failure," Dodson said. It has asked employees who chose to retire in September to return to work part-time.
Two new NIFA employees were "onboarding" in Kansas City, USDA Deputy Undersecretary Scott Hutchins wrote in an email to employees on Sept. 6. "There are approximately 150 permanent recruitments in progress right now for ERS and NIFA," he said.
As of Sept.30, according to the USDA, 15 new ERS employees and 16 relocated employees were working in Kansas City. Forty-five NIFA employees have relocated to Kansas City, where they were joined by four new employees, USDA said. Seventy-four ERS employees and 19 NIFA employees remain as permanent staff in D.C.