This op-ed ran in the Topeka Capital-Journal on October 22, 2018.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is right — the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rural America and federal taxpayers will all benefit by moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside of the Washington, D.C. area. The question then becomes, what location makes the most sense? We need not look further than Kansas.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reviews expressions of interest submitted by communities across the country, much hand-wringing has ensued about the impact that relocating the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will have on the agencies’ futures. Some critics have characterized the relocation of ERS and NIFA outside of the nation’s capital as a de facto move to marginalize the agencies’ work. I believe the opposite to be true — that government located outside of Washington, D.C., and closer to the people it serves improves its effectiveness.
As Secretary Perdue has noted, approximately 91 percent of the USDA’s workforce is already located outside of the Washington, D.C., area. Not only does this include Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Rural Development staff who interact with stakeholders on a daily basis, but also many behind-the-scenes positions that contribute greatly to achieving USDA’s mission.
For example, over 3,000 USDA employees and contractors currently live and work in the Kansas City metro area, one of the regions vying to be the future home of ERS and NIFA. These USDA employees have not been marginalized by being located in the middle of the country; instead, they are responsible for the success of some of the USDA’s most important and popular programs, such as crop insurance. Today’s technologically advanced work environment makes it easier to connect with colleagues in other physical locations than ever before.
Kansas ought to be a strong contender to land both of these important agencies. Our state is home to a highly-skilled workforce as a result of the state’s premier universities, research institutions, agricultural companies and industry producer groups. The animal health corridor, stretching from Manhattan, Kansas to Columbia, Missouri, comprises the largest concentration of animal health companies in the world. Kansas is also the future home of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), the nation’s foremost animal disease research facility. The concentration of animal health companies and location of NBAF will not only complement the research capabilities of NIFA and ERS, but will also foster and centralize a talented workforce that will help meet the personnel needs of the USDA.
When I chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, I worked to support robust funding for agricultural research, education and extension activities within ERS and NIFA. By reducing capital and operating costs — a primary goal for Secretary Perdue in relocating the agencies — we can invest more resources into important and applied work, instead of the high overhead costs associated with the Washington, D.C. area.
Over the years, the USDA has built a reputation for being a strong constituent-focused federal agency. The USDA has built and maintained this reputation by staying connected to rural America through its workforce spread across the country. Moving ERS and NIFA to the heartland will reinforce the USDA’s ability to achieve its critical mission of helping to provide the tools necessary for agriculture and rural communities to thrive in the future.
Government agencies ought to strive to serve the American people. Secretary Perdue should be applauded for his leadership in relocating ERS and NIFA to make certain that the USDA continues to stay connected with its stakeholders while taxpayers get the best possible return on investment. As this process continues, I will remain a steady voice in favor of relocation to our state.
Sen. Jerry Moran has represented Kansas in the U.S. Senate since 2011 and the U.S. House from 1997 to 2011.