ERS scales back in wake of mass employee exodus

Nearly 40 Economic Research Service reports covering issues affecting food and agriculture to be delayed or halted.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

September 27, 2019

5 Min Read
ERS Rural America report .jpg
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service's John Cormartie shares some insight on the State of rural America and Program Impacts in June 2018. The Rural America at a Glance report is one scheduled to be delayed due to the ERS relocation and staffing drop. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

Sept. 30 marks the day many employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) were due to check in at their new location in Kansas City, yet only a fraction will continue with the department’s economic research arm. As a result of the need to hire new employees, several reports will also be delayed or halted until further notice.

In announcing the move earlier this year, USDA said of the 329 ERS positions, 253 will relocate, while 76 will stay in the Washington, D.C., area. According to the union representing ERS – the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) – of the positions set to move to Kansas City, as of Sept. 26, only 5.71%, or 16 employees, had made the move. AFGE estimated that 17.5%, or 49 employees, have been offered full-time telework on reasonable accommodations or reasonable extensions of their requests.

Meanwhile, 33.21% -- or 93 employees -- left ERS, with an additional 52 (18.57%) choosing retirement. AFGE estimated that 70 employees, or 25% of the 280-member staff, have been allowed to stay in the Washington office.

According to a USDA spokesperson, employees have until the end of the September to decide whether or not to make the move and reported that the total number of employees making the move changes every day. The spokesperson said as of Sept. 23, ERS has 10 new employees and one new National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) employee who will start Sept. 30, and in addition, "we have well over 100 active recruitments in process between both agencies.”

AFGE sent an outline noting the impacts on upcoming ERS publications that could create considerable time delays due to staffing issues related to the agency’s pending relocation out of the Washington area.

The research divisions do not currently plan to discontinue products already listed on the calendar. However, due to potential shortages in staff, including web posting staff, there may be delays in some product postings, particularly on heavy posting days. Many commodity- and trade-related outlook products – comprising more then 90% of ERS calendar items – are expected to be released on schedule.

The statement said most outlook reports will be shortened if key staff depart before new hires are trained and if secure information technology connections preclude remote participation in the "World Agricultural Supply & Demand Estimates" and other interagency meetings. For example, they will have fewer or no "special articles," limited data visualizations and no tables in some pdf reports when they are also available as Excel files.

Congressionally mandated, biannual "Cost of Production" estimates released in October are not expected to be delayed, although those forecasts released in December may be delayed if new hires cannot be onboarded and trained in time (the majority of team members are leaving ERS).

The monthly "Food Price Outlook" may be delayed in October, November and December. "Rural America at a Glance" and "America’s Diverse Family Farms" are currently on schedule but will need people to shepherd them through clearance and will need editorial support. The November "Farm Income" release is not expected to be delayed but may encounter issues if editorial and posting resources are not available.

Some products could be delayed or discontinued until further notice. This includes the price spreads from farm to consumer, which are updated periodically, and any updates in the fall will probably be delayed.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue seeking insight into the reported research delays as well as how the Department plans to fill its capacity for both NIFA and ERS. 

“I am deeply concerned about the lack of capacity at NIFA and ERS due to the Trump Administration’s decision to relocate these agencies,” wrote Stabenow. “Over the past year, the Administration has repeatedly told Congress that the relocation would not affect capacity to administer research grants, conduct economic research, and carry out the critical missions of these two agencies.”

The lack of capacity due to the relocation is affecting Farm Bill implementation, Stabenow said in a statement. Just days before the end of the fiscal year, funding made available through NIFA has not been awarded for several grant programs, including those that help fruit and vegetable growers, organic producers, and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Many of these grantees already received notice of an award with a September 1 start date, but funding could be delayed for months, preventing grant recipients from starting their important projects.

House agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, oversight and departmental operations chair Marcia L. Fudge (D., Ohio) and subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research chair Stacey Plaskett (D., Virgin Islands) said delays confirm what Congress has warned about all along: “USDA’s misguided push to relocate key agencies and uproot employees impacts the department’s ability to provide support to farmers, consumers and rural communities. USDA has made reckless policy decisions that will delay or halt work on nearly 40 Economic Research Service reports covering a broad range of important issues impacting food and agriculture.

“We pushed USDA to provide a contingency plan to ensure that these work products would continue without delay, but it’s clear that the agency has no such plan. Basic and essential functions of the USDA are being delayed -- and, in some cases, completely cast aside -- as a result of an ill-planned ideological crusade by the Administration. It is remarkable the degree to which they claim to represent farmers yet do precisely the opposite,” Fudge and Plaskett said in a joint statement.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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