For some people, the most controversial part of the USDA’s ERS/NIFA move from D.C. to K.C. is learning for what that alphabet soup of letters stands.
Other than that, the soup may be a bubbling controversy for some people, but for most the concern is tepid, no worse than standing in line and hearing “Seinfeld’s” soup Nazi declare: “K.C., you get soup. D.C., no soup for you.”
As a start to unraveling and putting the controversy in perspective, here is a brief explanation of the abbreviations:
• USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture;
• ERS is the USDA’s Economic Research Service, which is designed to track trends affecting the food chain; and
• NIFA is the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is supposed to make sure federal agricultural money is spent effectively.
Question: What makes anything about ERS and NIFA controversial?
Answer: jobs and money.
The roughly 700 ERS and NIFA staffers on average are paid more than $100,000 per year. That kind of money is needed just to get by with raising a family in Washington, D.C. But in Kansas City, that kind of money buys a lot of soup and helps a family to do more than just get by.
ERS and NIFA employees, many having Ph.D.s, no doubt understand the huge advantage of moving from D.C. to K.C., where the cost of living is lower. But almost all preferred the status quo of staying where they lived versus facing the difficulties of uprooting.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue shook up the status quo. He said he did so to save millions of dollars by moving to less-costly K.C. facilities and by putting USDA employees closer to farmers. He pointed out that D.C. is not on anyone’s radar as an agriculture hub.
After a review of dozens of cities, Kansas City emerged as the top spot for the new headquarters for ERS and NIFA.
Perdue received pushback. Some 300 ERS and NIFA staff gave up their jobs, rather than move. Media reports raised concern that losing so many employees could create a brain drain. Those issues led to questions asked of Perdue at a press conference in Kansas City. His answers: The move will save money, staff will have more direct contact with farmers, there are far more qualified job applicants in K.C. than job openings, any brain drain will be remedied quickly and he has no regrets.
Most of Perdue’s answers will never satisfy ERS and NIFA employees who had their lives altered. Some refused to move or simply could not break D.C. ties, so they stayed. Others may have felt they had no choice but to move, reluctantly, more than 1,000 miles from the East Coast to the Midwest. But there is no arguing one point: As ag secretary, Perdue had the power and made the call:
“D.C., no soup for you.”