October 18, 2019 – The House Agriculture Committee’s Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee held a hearing on October 17th to review the implementation of USDA Farm Bill research programs. The hearing centered on discussion of the agency’s move to Kansas City and the deep loss of expertise and experience that is resulting from the relocation.
For organizations like OFRF, a 2019 recipient of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grants awarded through NIFA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative, a particular concern is the reimbursement process for work already completed. OFRF has developed the survey for its project titled A National Agenda for Organic and Transitioning Research and is in the process of testing it with a select group of farmers before launching nationally. When Congressman Panetta presented the issue, Deputy Secretary Hutchins committed to following-up on the implementation of the grants.
House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research Chair Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands addressed the issue head-on in her opening comments. “At a time of continued farm stress, it should be USDA’s top priority to support research efforts that directly benefit farmers.
“. . . Unfortunately, I believe my fears are becoming true. This week, I received updates on staffing levels and the status of Fiscal Year 2019 funding. ERS has appropriated funding to support 329 employees, but currently, a total of 214 positions are vacant – a vacancy rate of 65%. To put it bluntly, NIFA is in even worse shape. Out of 344 appropriated positions, 264 are currently vacant – a vacancy rate over 76%. I was told these extreme staff shortages mean some grant recipients will not receive their funds until March 2020.
“These gaps in service reinforce the notion that this relocation was hurried, misguided, and mismanaged. ERS and NIFA have been undermined at the very time these agencies require knowledgeable staff to implement Farm Bill changes, administer grants, and complete critical economic reports. Our farmers and ranchers deserve better, and so do the valued career public servants who have left their positions within ERS and NIFA for other opportunities.”