Ag Policy Blog

Next Chapter at ERS Likely Delayed or Discontinued

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The Temple of Hera at Selinunte, Sicily, highlights how even the grandest of buildings can be dismantled. USDA has provided a similar blueprint for the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS). (DTN graphic by Nick Scalise)

Dairy farmers have spent much of the past two years seeing smaller producers dwindle away. Some solid economic data on the impacts would be nice, but dairy consolidation just one of the topics USDA's Economic Research Service no longer has the staff to work on.

Perhaps that issue might come up as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visits Wisconsin on Tuesday.

As Politico first reported, an internal memo at USDA shows roughly 80% of employees at ERS have now left the agency rather than relocate to Kansas City, Mo. In the memo, USDA stated, "Due to decreased staffing levels, ERS will for considerable time be unable to provide the same level of breadth and depth in its economic research and outlook analysis as it did in the past."

Perdue sent a video message to employees at ERS and the other agency involved in the move, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Perdue said Monday

"Today marks the official first day of the next chapter of ERS and NIFA in Kansas City. I appreciate your commitment to the mission of your agencies throughout the relocation process. As I’ve noted before, I frequently tell people I meet that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government, and your commitment to the one USDA family has not gone unnoticed. Many of you have worked long hours to ensure a successful transition, and no doubt, there is more work to come."

Perdue added, "This is a great opportunity to ensure you at ERS and NIFA can continue a high level of work and service to your customers, while allowing us to prioritize investments in critical research and in you, our employees. I am confident we can build on the past successes of your agencies to make our work sustainable for the future and further our mission of service to our customers."…

At least 38 reports will be delayed or discontinued until further notice. USDA, however, will focus on "developing consistent external messaging for delayed and/or discontinued products."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a letter to Perdue on Friday that she was concerned about the lack of capacity at ERS and NIFA to conduct their missions. When it comes to NIFA, as of last week there had been an array of grant recipients who still had not been funded by NIFA.…

The moves raise the question of whether Congress must specifically deny a department authority to reorganize or move an agency in legislation outside of budget authority. A USDA Office of Inspector General report in early August cited that USDA had legal authority to realign both ERS and NIFA, but the 2018 Consolidated Appropriation Act had set limits on USDA's authority to realign offices. The department has not gotten congressional approval, as required under the statute, and USDA also has not met a reporting deadline under the act as well. USDA's Office of General Counsel responded with a 16-page memo to the OIG summarizing that USDA has acted in accordance with the law and secretaries have discretion to reorganize their departments.

"We're kind of a test case," said Laura Dodson, an USDA Economic Research Service employee who serves as vice president of their union, American Federal Government Employee Local 3404. Dodson added, "It shows they can dismantle an agency outside of congressional authority."

The Trump administration proposed twice in budget requests to reduce staff and research areas at ERS, but those requests were ignored. Perdue and other leaders at USDA then announced in August 2018 that USDA would move the bulk of agency's employees, along with NIFA.

According to the union, 141 people have left ERS. Monday was the first day of the new ERS in Kansas City, Mo., and USDA in Washington, D.C. There are 16 people in Kansas City and 24 more still in Washington.

"It's just absolutely insane they have kicked out hundreds of qualified scientists in order to move 16 people to Kansas City," Dodson said.

USDA put out a memo to employees stating the department plans to hire 150 more employees in Kansas City.

ERS also plays a critical role in the USDA Outlook conference, which is meant to revolve around the department's economic data and forecasts. At least a few areas, such as organic production and the opioid epidemic in rural America now no longer have anyone left at ERS to provide research data.

The Monthly Food Price Outlook may be delayed until the rest of the year. Seasonal commodity forecasts in October will likely be delayed, which includes the two-year price forecasts used by the Risk Management Agency and World Agricultural Outlook Board.

"We just don't have the staff anymore and even research that has been completed will have a hard time getting out because we are just so short-staffed," Dodson said.

The group that was in charge of publishing ERS studies, the Publishing Services branch was made up of nine people. There are two left on extensions in D.C., the rest of them left the department. USDA's memo indicates reports will have no special articles, limited data visualizations and often no tables.

ERS was meant to inform policymakers, such as members of Congress, about what was happening in rural America. As USDA's memo notes, "With fewer staff, we expect to be able to support a reduced number of staff analysis requests and briefings."

The laundry list of delays looks a little more like this:

Food Economics Division: How Americans Spend Time on Food-Related Activities: A Time-Use Analysis using the 2004-16 American Time Use Survey; Household Food Insecurity and Federal Housing Assistance; Cost Containment and Participant Access in the WIC Program; Resource Requirements of Future Food Demand in the United States; Food Loss at the Farm and Pre-Retail Sectors: A Look at the Produce Supply Chain in the United States; Food, Temperature, Season, Region and Campylobacteriosis in the U.S., EIB,; Cost Implications of Participant Product Selection in the Women, Infants and Children Program; The Potential Impact of New Bread and Breakfast Cereal Products on U.S. Nutrient Consumption; An Examination of Veterans’ Diet Quality; Household Characteristics and the State Economic and Policy Environment are Both Linked to Food Insecurity Among Households with Children; Estimating Prices for Foods Reported Consumed in Dietary Recall Data: The Purchase to Plate Price Tool; Food Purchasing Patterns and Obesity in the United States; The Cost of Foodborne Illness: What’s Science Got to Do with It?; Water for Food: Tracking Freshwater Use in the U.S. Food Supply Chain; Marketing Practices and Financial Performance of Local Food Producers: A Comparison of Beginning and Experienced Farmers; The Impact of Super Center Stores on the Availability of SNAP-Approved Stores; Food Security Among Working-Age Veterans

These reports will see significant delays:

Market and Trade Economics Division: Changes in Trade from Removing Global Market Distorting Policies; Agricultural Market Access Under Tariff Rate Quotas; U.S. Agricultural Exports to Regions in China; The Changing Composition of US Ag Trade with Canada and Mexico; Evaluating USDA Long-Run Forecasts for US Harvested Area; India's Oilseed and Feed Market; U.S. Competition for Southeast Asia Dairy Imports; Food Loss at the Farm and Pre-Retail Sectors: A Look at the Produce Supply Chain in the United States; Brazil’s Agricultural Competitiveness: Impact on Global Trade; Issues and Trends in Production Practices and Costs of the U.S. Corn Sector; Factors Contributing to Changes in Agricultural Commodity Prices and Trade for the United States and the World; A Deeper Look into the USDA Crop Baseline Projections

Resource and Rural Economics Division: The changing drivers of the opioid epidemic: From physical disability in the 2000s to economic hardship in the 2010s; The Distribution of Farm Household Income and Wealth; Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming; SNAP Impacts on the Rural and Urban Economies in the Aftermath of the Great Recession; Honeybees on the Move: Pollination Services and Honey Production; Cover Crop Trends and Practices in the U.S.; Farm Use of Futures, Options and Marketing Contracts; Scenarios of Global Diets and the Impact on Land Resources; Trends in Organic Production and Marketing in the U.S.

Other reports that may be delayed or discontinued looks like this:

Food Economics Division: Food Environment Atlas—updated data is expected in early Fall—this will be delayed; Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer—this is updated periodically and any updates in the Fall will probably be delayed; FoodAPS—all updates, especially to the publications page, will be completed by the end of September; any updates in the Fall may be delayed; SNAP Policy Database, which was to be updated in 2020, will be delayed; Quarterly Food at home prices database will not be updated or significantly delayed: Food Consumption and Nutrient Intakes Data Product will not be updated; 2020 ERS Cost of Foodborne Illness Data Product will be delayed; The Food Processing Topic Page will no longer be updated; The Food Retailing Topic Page may be delayed or no longer updated.

Market and Trade Economics Division: Updates to nearly all topic pages will be delayed until sufficient staffing levels are obtained; this includes a number of high-demand commodity topic pages including Corn & Feedgrains, Cotton & Wool, Fruit & Tree Nuts, Rice, Soybeans & Oil Crops, Sugar & Sweeteners, Vegetables & Pulses, Wheat, and Bioenergy; Data products that are not calendar items, including high demand commodity related data products, will likely be delayed.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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