Vilsack confirms that USDA research arms will not return to Washington, D.C.

Now headquartered in Kansas City, former staff hope that remote work flexibilities—made possible by the pandemic—can help the agency rebuild expertise, following a controversial Trump-era relocation.

One and a half years ago, the Trump administration controversially relocated two Department of Agriculture (USDA) research agencies out of the Beltway—a move that many suspected was an attempt to undercut their findings, which at times conflicted with the president’s political stances.

Now, the Biden administration has announced that it will not reverse the move: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this week that USDA will keep the agencies headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, to maintain stability for staff.

“What we’re trying to do is limit the level of disruption,” Vilsack said, according to a report by the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

In 2018, the Trump administration first announced its plans to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to the Midwest as a purported cost-cutting measure. ERS researches and analyzes a wide range of issues in the food system—from industry consolidation to pollinator health—and NIFA oversees the allocation of $1.7 billion in funding for agricultural research.

“It is not in the best interest of employees to be punted back and forth from D.C. to the Midwest.”

Immediately, longtime staff at both agencies raised concerns that the relocation was an attempt to hamstring their work. In the past, ERS findings had clashed with White House messaging on issues including food stamps, climate change, and trade, and the Trump administration had previously made multiple requests that Congress slash its funding. In the year following the relocation announcement, staff resigned in large numbers and new research nearly ground to a halt.

Vilsack’s announcement was welcomed by current and former staff, who agreed that relocating the agencies back to D.C. would only lead to further demoralization.

“It is not in the best interest of employees to be punted back and forth from D.C. to the Midwest,” said Laura Dodson, union representative for ERS staff. “[Vilsack’s] commitment to making sure that we’re calming the waters is well-received.”

One of the earliest concerns raised by critics of the relocation was that it would detach staffers in Kansas City from leadership staff, some of whom were permitted to remain in D.C. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, employees have been working remotely for the past 14 months. Now, some are hoping to see such arrangements made permanent.

“The pandemic has demonstrated our ability to work from anywhere, so the union will also be advocating for remote or virtual duty stations.”

“The pandemic has demonstrated our ability to work from anywhere, so the union will also be advocating for remote or virtual duty stations,” said Elina Page, a union steward. “Although we have hired many new researchers ‘in Kansas City,’ many are not actually in Kansas City right now. They are working across the country.”

Dodson said that USDA should try to make up for the loss of expertise caused by the relocation by proactively recruiting former staff. Many long-time agency researchers retired early, leaving behind a documented gap of institutional knowledge. According to a December report by the USDA Office of Inspector General, the number of ERS staff with at least 10 years of experience was more than halved following the move. NIFA saw a similar drop off in expertise among staff.

[Subscribe to our 2x-weekly newsletter and never miss a story.]

Randi Johnson, former director of the global climate change division at NIFA, was one of many who left the agency to avoid an abrupt relocation to Kansas City. She and her team had been responsible for overseeing funding for climate change research, a mission she says has been hampered by the brain drain. She hopes for the sake of future research on the issue that NIFA fills its vacancies soon, regardless of where staff are based.

“Have new issues come up? Do we need to move money somewhere else now? Those are the things that have to be addressed, and the staff that used to do that is not there anymore.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.