Digging Deeper ...

Having prevailed over a field of 135 cities and regions all contending to become the new home for USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the Missouri/Kansas  organizers behind the effort to land ERS and NIFA in the KC area were entitled to take a breather. To smell the roses, strut a little. That wasn’t the case, though. Kimberly Young, president of the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, told Agricultural Business Council members at the July 11 social hour at Stockyards Brewery, that the morning after the June 14 announcement, the real work was about to begin. On day one, she said her KCAHC team and the Kansas City Area Development Council uploaded a website for ERS and NIFA employees carrying dedicated information about housing, schools, churches, special needs services, community services, real estate – the list goes on – to make the transition easier for staff choosing  to relocate. 

The Hard Work Begins

Announcing the relocation last month of the ERS and NIFA from Washington D.C. to metropolitan Kansas City, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “We did not take these relocations lightly.” He was talking about the disruption it was causing some in the USDA rank and file, as well  others who were defending the Belt Way culture in general.  

Heartland agriculture and animal health leaders aren’t brushing aside the magnitude and challenge of the move, either. That’s why KCAHC president Kimberly Young and Tim Cowden, CEO of KCADC, and their organizations have been working for more than a month with USDA’s  ERS and NIFA staffers who have decided to move. The campaign entails an all-encompassing effort from about 300 local and regional organizations, groups, companies and universities that will make it easier for the ERS and NIFA and their employees to make the transition from the Belt Way to the Heartland.

The entire KC region has stepped up in a big way to ease the transition for ERS and NIFA employees who choose to make the move, notes KCAHC director Emily McVey. “In addition to designated relocation specialists, businesses from across the region are offering millions of dollars in exclusive discounts and complementary services including banks, schools, housing, auto, sports and entertainment, shopping and dining and employment services for ERS and NIFA employees and their families”

In response to USDA’s announcement that the Kansas City had been selected as the ERS and NIFA new home offices, KCAHC/KCADCorganizers said they were committed to being USDA’s partner during the entire relocation process and were ready to welcome the ERS and NIFA teams and “introducing them to KC’s incredible culture, robust scientific community and unprecedented access to the research, farm, agribusiness and financial customers they serve.”

Push Back

It is not an exaggeration to say the Kansas City region – with an almost two-century-old culture of farming and animal husbandry, its existing ag industry infrastructure and heavy concentration of animal health companies and its current deep federal footprint with the presence of a Federal Reserve Bank regional headquarters and 5,000 USDA employees and contractors already located in the area – was a shoe-in for selection.  (See “Box Score of a Successful Bid”)

Naysayers, however, have questioned the move. In May when the field of 136 candidate areas was narrowed to three sites, ERS employees voted to unionize in protest of the move. Many of them turned their backs on USDA Sec. Perdue during an employee meeting about the relocation.  Cynics in the media and inside the Belt Way seemed delighted to run headlines like this: “Fewer Than Half of USDA Workers Will Follow Agency to Kansas City,” KC Star, July 16, 2019. Other outlets ran stories with leads highlighting that the promised 500 jobs ERS and NIFA would bring would be more like 150 or so. What wasn’t thoroughly reported, however, is that USDA has encountered high staff turnover Washington D.C. in recent years because of high living costs and long commutes to work, according to Animal Pharm News, June 14, 2019. Further, reported AFN,  90% of USDA employees are already located outside the D.C. area

But local KCAHC/KCADC leaders pushed back, indicating the 500 jobs indeed would materialize. They pointed out that 13 land-grant universities and other research institutions in the region will annually produce top talent to fill key positions vacated by ERS/NIFA staff that did not take the option to move. “No one location in the U.S. offers a similar cluster of land grant access and diversity,” they said. “In 2017, these institutions granted more than a 150 PhDs in agricultural-related fields.”

Executive director of the American Statistical Association Ron Wasserstein wrote a Special to the Star op-ed piece, July 18, 2019, saying “when you add up all the evidence, we reach the conclusion that the USDA’s motivation is to sharply reduce the research the ERS produces.”  

But again, the KCAHC/KCADC team argues that themove out of D.C. is designed to make USDA the most effective, efficient and customer-focused department in the entire federal government. “What better place to do that than an affordable location like Kansas City in the epicenter of global agriculture? The KC region has a robust scientific research community, specifically as it relates to agriculture.”

As for their concerns about being detached from Washington D.C. and without direct access to lawmakers, skeptical ERS and NIFA staffers are being assured by Kansas City promoters of the relocation that they will not be isolated. The federal government is the largest employer in the Kansas City area – with 5,000 USDA employees and another 35,000 federal employees who work for 150 federal agencies across the metro. Also, notes the KC team, Missouri and Kansas  have a federal union presence with nearly 9% union membership in both states.  

What’s more, Atlanta-based CDC is a large, well-funded federal agency that operates effectively outside of the Washington D.C. area. And speaking of funding, the debt and budget deal struck last week by President Trump and Congressional leaders – to  revise the caps on defense and nondefense discretionary appropriations for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to allow for higher amounts of funding than is permitted under current law caps and budget enforcement procedures – should work in Sec. Perdue’s favor. 

Some Congressional House members were hoping to cut allocations USDA would have needed to relocate ERS/NIFA to the Heartland. That’s not likely, at this point. What is likely, though, is what KCAHC’s Kimberly Young emphasized at the happy hour earlier in the month: The move is going to happen.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Writers LLC