WASHINGTON — Housed inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the federal agency that regulates all things farming and food — is a little-known research organization that has, for six decades, helped quietly guide the country’s foreign and domestic agriculture policy.
Over 300 employees at the Economic Research Service track the health of the American farm industry, studying everything from the projected impact of global temperature changes on crop yields to the promise of genetically modified organisms. Agency employees consider it as among the most prestigious jobs an agricultural economist can land.
“This is the ears and eyes of [presidential] administrations — on domestic policy, environmental policy, risk assessment, and technology adoption,” said David Zilberman, Chair of the University of California-Berkeley’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
But USDA employees fear all the agency’s work could be erased completely if the Trump administration follows through with plans to uproot the division — and all its scientists — and move them to Kansas City.
The researchers’ union anticipates, after an unofficial count, that as many as 80 percent of the employees are planning to quit rather than move, and that will disrupt entire fields of study, ranging from honeybee pollination patterns to how crop prices fluctuate with changes in consumer demand. Their positions will take years to fill, if USDA staff recruits new hires at all.
“I think, as a whole, we feel that this is a pattern of hostility toward scientific research at our agency,” said Laura Dodson, a researcher and union steward at the agency. She and Zilberman estimate that the attrition spurred in part by this move will set the agency back five to ten years.
“I think it’s fairly clear they want to gut this agency.”
One agency employee who plans on leaving the agency this summer is more blunt: “I think it’s fairly clear they want to gut this agency.”
In mid-June, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the bulk of the research staff, along with most employees at its sister agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, would move to a new office in Kansas City. Staff have until July 15, just one month after Perdue officially announced the move, to decide whether they will go to Kansas City or lose their jobs.
Those who decide not to move will remain employed until September 30, the last day of fiscal year 2019.
Perdue has justified the move by arguing that the cost of living adjustments will save the government $300 million over 15 years. The Trump administration has said, too, that it wants to move researchers closer to the land and people they study.
“The Kansas City region has proven itself to be hub [sic] for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland,” Perdue said in a statement published last month. “The Kansas City region will allow [us] to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.”
The effort comes after the Trump administration suggested cutting the Economic Research Service’s budget by nearly one-third, and after the USDA issued a mandate that its scientists refer to published research as “preliminary.” Taken together, employees say the move to Kansas City amounts to little more than an effort to stifle their research.
In response to an email outlining these concerns, a USDA spokesperson told VICE News that “the relocation does not change the mission of [the subagencies].”
“Fully die out”
Dodson notes that the positions designated to remain in D.C. –– only 76 out of 329 at the agency –– don’t include the researchers working on projects that are “unpalatable” to the Trump administration.
“Everybody working on climate change, everybody working on rural development, everybody working on anything that has clashed with the administration is being forced out West,” she said. Consequently, she said, “there will be full research areas that just cease to exist.”
“Everybody working on anything that has clashed with the administration is being forced out West.”
Among dozens of other research projects, the Economic Research Service runs six “core” systems, or research models that staff use on a recurring basis for different projects.
After the move to Kansas City, at least two core models will have zero staff members to run them.
One, the Future Agricultural Resources Model, evaluates the effects of global weather patterns and economics on agricultural systems. The model simulates, for example, how changes in one geographic region can affect land and water resources, as well as the production and consumption of 13 commodities in eight regions.
Those analyses help show how climate change will affect global agricultural systems; it is critical, employees say, in helping lawmakers craft better trade and agricultural policy. But the model will have no one to run it when the agency moves.
Another model, called Regional Environment and Agriculture Programming, allows researchers to project crop yields, price fluctuations, and crop management based on a number of different factors, including changes in public policy (like subsidies), demand, or production technology.
That model will lose all three of its members and “fully die out,” Dodson said. (She adds, drily, that she realized this only after chatting casually with a coworker in the office kitchen.)
These vacancies compound an already lean staff. Nobody currently runs a third core model, which assesses food insecurity in 76 different low- and middle-income countries.
Other teams inside the Economic Research Service will also lose employees: Those that classify counties around the country as rural, urban, or metro-adjacent, determinations that establish guidelines for the disbursement of benefits for entitlement programs like Medicaid. Those that work on eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those that model the efficacy of the USDA’s conservation programs on water quality.
One researcher tells VICE News that they spent over three years tracking honey bee pollination patterns. They learned, among other things, where most of the country’s honey bees go in the late winter (California, to pollinate almond trees), and where they go in the summer (North Dakota, the number two colony state in the country).
They traced honeybees’ travels through the Great Plains, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest, through apple orchards and pear trees.
“For the average person, they need to be able to make wise food choices — they need to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced,” the researcher said. “Without this knowledge on pollination services, Americans are left in the dark about how their food is produced.”
The USDA itself has spent at least $50 million over the last decade studying bees, with agency literature referring to them as “the most economically important species” because they contribute $15 billion annually to crop values.
But of the five people working on honey bee research at the Economic Research Service –– which the team finally submitted as an economic research report to the agency in June –– four are leaving. And without a team in place to usher the paper through the roughly six-month editing and revision process, that research won’t see publication.
On Dodson’s team, housed in the Resource and Rural Economics Division, at least 10 of the 12 employees will quit rather than relocate to Kansas City. Dodson and colleagues have also spent the last two years working on a report about Dicamba, a controversial herbicide that can drift onto neighboring fields and harm crops not bio-engineered to withstand it. (In 2016, a man murdered a neighboring farmer over a dispute about Dicamba.)
Without staff to finish editing and writing the report, that work, too, will cease to exist.
“We just decided that we can’t do it [anymore],” she said. “It’s going to be trashed, and we’re going to maybe get a short blurb out.”
“They're going to snuff us out”
Both employees and scientists unaffiliated with the agency describe the Economic Research Service as filling a unique space in the world of agricultural economics, with the latitude to explore research more grounded in public policy. It was “a destination,” Dodson said. “Working here was a big achievement.”
Economists at USDA also serve as in-house experts for federal agencies, which consult them for economic data and analyses.
Zilberman said that one of the Economic Research Service’s greatest strengths is that staff can provide policymakers with economic analysis nearly in real time. That’s not necessarily true of university researchers, he said.
“Once in a while we address what’s going on in the real world in a systematic way. And if you look at the stuff we’re doing it’s extremely useful. But we don’t provide you, as a policymaker, an assessment of the situation today,” he said.
Not so of the Economic Research Service, which “combines environmental considerations with economic considerations in a way that is much more practical and much more consistent with the reality of production than, say, an agency like the [Environmental Protection Agency].”
The agency also has a legacy of pushing back against public policy that is at odds with scientific fact.
“The ERS always told people bad news they don’t want to hear,” Zilberman said. “They told George H. W. Bush that the biofuel program in the 1990s would be a waste of time. Every president got some bad news through them. Every president was able to deal with it.”
About a year and a half ago, for example, the Economic Research Service produced an analysis of the impact of Trump’s tax reform on farm income. It showed that the benefits of the tax plan would primarily accrue to more wealthy farmers, rather than those of more modest means, a conclusion that irritated the administration, one USDA researcher said.
Under the Trump administration, Zilberman said, the USDA is more reticent to back-fill positions because of research that has been at odds with federal policy.
“They’ve stated this whole time that they’re not trying to shrink our agency, that they’re going to rehire. But who’s going to be willing to work here now? You don’t know who your boss is going to be, what your research is going to be, when you’re going to start,” Dodson said. “Even if we manage to get the secretary to slow down or stop this move, it won't save us from the irreparable damage to the loss of expertise.”
Up until now, the researcher who worked on the honeybee report said, “they’ve almost squeezed us out.” And now? “Now,” the researcher said, “they’re going to snuff us out.”
Cover: Department of Agriculture sign in Washington, DC (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)