When the USDA announced a year ago that it was relocating two of its research departments out of Washington, DC, critics argued that the move would limit their effectiveness. Undeterred, the USDA continued with its plan to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to Kansas City.
But a majority of the employees in those departments have declined to move, preferring instead to quit their jobs. A USDA spokesperson told NPR in July that 72 ERS employees have accepted relocation, while 99 declined or didn't respond, and that 73 NIFA employees have accepted relocation, while 151 declined or didn't respond.
And now, according to Government Executive, the USDA is offering retired employees their old jobs back to make up for the losses in its scientific ranks. Those jobs will be in DC.
One retired ERS employee tells Government Executive that the department offered a position working 20 hours per week, at the same salary — prorated on an hourly basis — that they were making before they left the agency.
A USDA spokesperson confirmed to Government Executive that the department would use the Reemployed Annuitants program to "maintain continuity" at ERS and NIFA following the relocation to Kansas City, but didn't say how many retirees it hopes to rehire.
But even if the USDA is able to temporarily fill every position it has open, former ERS assistant administrator Steve Crutchfield tells Government Executive that the loss of institutional knowledge will have a severe negative impact on policymaking and the agricultural industry.
"One of the experts that I relied on for issues of farm structure competition and concentration, he's leaving," Crutchfield says. "He was the person I'd go to and say, 'Help, I need an answer and I need it right away.' If I were there today, I don't know how I'd be doing my job. So many people with so much expertise and knowledge are not going to be there. It takes years; it takes a long time to build up the intellectual capital to be able to answer the questions I had to answer [from stakeholders]."
Crutchfield also tells Government Executive that USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue's supposed goal of moving the agency to be "closer to its customers" doesn't really make sense.
"The customers of ERS' work to a great extent, where it had the greatest impact, was decisionmakers in Congress and in the executive branch offices," he says. "I can say I very rarely got a call from a farmer out in the Midwest asking a question."