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Morton and collegues in cornfield (copy)

Researchers working on a USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture project gather data in the Midwest in 2015.

When Congress finally passed a Fiscal Year 2019 bill that the president agreed to sign, it was good news for farmers who depend on the conservation, loan and many other programs held in suspension during the four-and-a-half months of fiscal uncertainty. But people who care about agriculture’s future structure, design, profitability, environmental sustainability, fair opportunity and community food security should monitor one provision pertaining to a misguided administration restructuring gambit regarding research and outreach.

What’s so important about research, education and extension? Because today’s investments in designing and understanding agricultural systems profoundly influence what tomorrow’s agricultural system looks like, farmers, scientists and others were understandably upset in August when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the administration’s intention to move two principal agencies from their Washington, D.C., headquarters to undetermined locations elsewhere in the country. The two agencies are the National Institute for Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service. The plan would also move the independent Economic Research Service into a more politicized position within the agency, undermining its ability to provide independent analysis on proposals coming from the agency itself.

Perdue offered no explanation of how the department had sought or planned to seek required input from stakeholders before proceeding.

The administration’s proposal might seem innocuous — an attempt to bring the government “to the people” — but critics see it as a roundabout way to cut government without congressional consultation and politicize the intellectual independence of these two research agencies. Further, important interagency collaborations are spawned by multiagency proximity created in the nation’s capital, resulting in practical knowledge crucial for farmers and agricultural businesses to surmount today’s climate, market and pest challenges. Predictions that experienced staff would leave the agency rather than uproot their families to move elsewhere appear to be justified; out of approximately 400 staff, the institute began losing about a staff person per day during the autumn — and that was before the shutdown.

In December, over 50 scientists, including former department research directors, wrote Congress about their concerns, saying, “We believe the restructuring will undermine our food and agriculture enterprise by disrupting and hampering the agencies’ vital work in support of it — through research, analyses, and statistics. We are also deeply troubled such a major upheaval of the USDA research arm would be carried out with such haste and without the input and prior consultation of the USDA research stakeholders.”

Appropriations bills routinely include a narrative report explaining congressional intent and providing context and directives for the funding’s use. This year, Congress instructed the secretary to provide cost estimates for his proposal and expressed support for an indefinite delay in moving the Economic Research Service. Further, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree recently introduced a bill that would put Perdue’s misguided effort on hold. However, department insiders say Perdue plans to ignore these congressional expressions of concern.

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Over 135 institutions, including Wisconsin, expressed interest in becoming these agencies’ new homes, though even if the proposed reorganization progresses, Wisconsin is unlikely to end up hosting either agency. We should ignore parochial interests and uphold longstanding good governance practices and requirements, such as soliciting and heeding stakeholder input and conducting cost-benefit analyses of proposed changes. This proposal is a bad idea in itself, and it could set a dangerous precedent for unaccountable government for this administration to attempt to downsize government without congressional oversight.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

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