AMES, Iowa — One of the nation’s top agricultural researchers said he’s worried that the U.S. Department of Agriculture “right now is being savaged” by administrators determined to move key agencies out of the nation’s capital despite an inevitable loss of key personnel.

Professor Matt Liebman, who holds the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, said recently that without the research done by the two agencies, policymakers and farmers will have a harder time making decisions that require critical long-term data.

Professor Matt Liebman, who holds the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, is worried about proposed changes to key agricultural research agencies. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

It’s a concern that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, the 1st Congressional District Democrat from Maine, has raised repeatedly. She is pushing to block the move with a provision in the budget bill likely to pass this fall.

Pingree said recently that she is “appalled with the Trump administration’s decision to force hundreds of Washington-based USDA research staffers to uproot their lives to Kansas City in order to keep their livelihoods” because it plans to move the USDA’s Economic Research Service and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in June that moving the agencies to Kansas City “provides a win win — maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes, and extraordinary living for our employees.”

Besides, he said, the Kansas City area “has proven itself to be a hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the agencies’ workers, said the talk of moving has already led to “catastrophic attrition” as employees jump ship to avoid uprooting their families.

“The damage was already done before Secretary Perdue made his decision,” Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a prepared statement.

“It was clear from the start that the Trump administration was systematically hollowing out USDA’s ability to produce objective science,” he said. “This is a blatant attack on science and will especially hurt farmers, ranchers and eaters at a particularly vulnerable time.”

Pingree said that many of the researchers said they “believe their relocation is an effort to silence their research into topics that do not align with the Trump administration’s political agenda, including the study of climate change and benefits of low-income food assistance.

Iowa State professor Matt Liebman walks through a prairie on a research farm near Ames, Iowa. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Liebman, who spent 11 years at the University of Maine before taking the job in Iowa in 1998, said maintaining public sector research into agricultural trends is vitally important.

Agricultural interests, he said, require long-term information on everything from changing temperatures to water quality issues.

Without that information, farmers are “impeded from adapting” to changing conditions, Liebman said during a recent tour of the corn and soybean fields at the college’s South Reynolds Farm outside Des Moines.

“We need to know more, not less,” Liebman said.

The two government agencies, which have been based in Washington, D.C., are slated to move to Kansas City this fall. Employees are supposed to be in Kansas City by Sept. 30, but have recently been given a reprieve to work remotely if necessary until the end of the year.

Pingree is the sponsor of a bill that would hit the brakes on the move.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine

Her Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2019 would keep the two agencies in Washington.

“From the beginning, the decision to relocate NIFA and ERS was disrespectful to these career public workers and it has not been fully vetted,” she said, pointing out that a required cost-benefit analysis has yet to be turned over to Congress.

“Any action affecting this many lives should not be undertaken without the data to support its need,” Pingree said.  She helped ensure the House version of the proposed 2020 budget would prevent the department from relocating the researchers.

The House and Senate are working to hash out exactly what should stay in their competing versions of the budget before a Sept. 30 deadline.

It isn’t clear that Perdue has the authority to order the agencies to move.

His department’s inspector general said in a report that the 2018 budget limits Perdue from realigning or relocating offices. It also said the department needs congressional approval, which hasn’t happened, and hasn’t complied with a reporting deadline set by Congress.

Even so, it appears the move is set to take place next month, though it isn’t yet clear whether the new location will be in Kansas or Missouri.

Perdue said the government will save about $300 million moving the agencies while putting them closer to agricultural interests.

He said it would help the department “attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities” such as Iowa State.

Liebman said it is part of a trend that is hurting America’s agricultural interests, including providing ever less funding for land-grant universities.

“They’re not investing in long-term information,” he said, even though the need for more data is becoming ever more clear as climate change disrupts traditional weather cycles and necessitates more research into ways to cope with rising temperatures, shifting rain patterns and a host of other complex issues.