U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue toured the future home of two research agencies under his watch that have relocated to Kansas City, a move he said brings researchers closer to agriculture.
Perdue on Friday toured a building at 805 Pennsylvania Ave. in downtown Kansas City that more than 500 employees working for the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture eventually will call their headquarters. The USDA earlier this year announced that the agencies would move from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.
“I think it will help farmers because it brings those researchers who make those decisions and analyses really closer to the heartland,” Perdue told reporters during the tour. “It gives them a feel of a fragrance of what a state like Kansas and Missouri do for agriculture. There’s a certain culture here and it influences your on-the-ground truthing ability rather than sitting some place that doesn’t have any agriculture.”
An Economic Research Service employee doubted that a move out of Washington would help the agency’s research.
“This assertion that being closer to a singular type of agriculture will make the agency as a whole function better is ridiculous,” said Laura Dodson, an agricultural economist with the ERS. She also leads American Federation of Government Employees Local No. 3403, the union that represents ERS employees.
“Our research is based on national level statistics and reporting and is not tied to the specifics of any singular region, state, county or field. None of our staff will go out and do field research. Our staff will work with stakeholders in D.C.”
Dodson said the agency does a farm tour each year as part of its annual meeting.
Perdue suggested some field research could be in the offing for the agency.
“I think to some degree they could be doing some field research that obviously Economic Research Service has to do with fact-checking some of the things on the ground and that’s part of it,” Perdue said.
Pressed for details, Perdue reiterated that proximity to farmers would assist in research.
“If you’re in D.C. and you got to go to talk to a farmer where do you go?” Perdue said. “That’s what they will be doing here, that’s why they’re in the heartland where agriculture is here and exposed to them.”
In a statement, the USDA said ERS and NIFA work would not be possible without input and interaction of farmers and ranchers.
“Specifically, farmers use ERS research and data to make decisions about future investments in equipment or crop management planning, such as determining what crop is likely to deliver them the best return,” a USDA spokesperson said.
Perdue was accompanied by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri; Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas; Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
Local officials cheered the move for the high-paying jobs that it would bring to Kansas City. But the decision was criticized in some quarters as a move meant to diminish research functions under the USDA. A majority of ERS and NIFA employees declined to relocate from Washington to Kansas City.
Perdue said he was not concerned about the loss of institutional memory from experienced employees leaving the agencies.
“We believe that the people that come will help to train those people very quickly and we will continue with no mission loss whatsoever,” Perdue said.
Several jobs are being posted as the General Services Administration is working on outfitting the interior of the 805 Pennsylvania building, although no move-in date was immediately clear.