Big changes are coming to the USDA and to the Kansas City metro area. Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Perdue announced that two major arms of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), would be moving to the Kansas City area this summer. What does this mean for the KC metro’s economy? What about Franklin County farmers?
To answer the first question, we have to look at what we know about the move. Roughly 600 employees will be relocating from Washington D.C. to the Kansas City area, though we don’t know which side of the state line they will call their new home. The General Services Administration has put out a call for proposals for buildings in the area and, of the 6 buildings that fit their specifications, the closest to Ottawa is the Sprint office building in Overland Park.
Certainly the broader Kansas City area will benefit from the additional jobs, larger tax base, and economic activity from support services provided to these new-to-Kansas-City federal workers. Additionally, the federal government estimates that there will be a $300 million in federal government budget savings over the next 15 years due to lower building rent and other advantages from the relocation.
NIFA allocates grant funding for the bulk of the grant programs the USDA provides each year. Due primarily to our world-class Land Grant University in Manhattan, Kansas receives tens of millions of dollars each year in research funds from NIFA for a range of research efforts including crop and animal agriculture, agricultural economics, natural resources, food science, health, and education. I don’t think NIFA’s location change will mean much for Franklin County agriculture; grant funds will flow into and out of NIFA just as they did when the employees were housed in D.C.
However, I think there’s a possibility that Franklin County agriculture will benefit from ERS’s move to Kansas City. ERS is an in-house research division within the USDA. It houses a gaggle of economists who are trained in analysis of markets, rural economies, farm management, food and nutrition assistance, food safety, international trade, and other issues related to agriculture.
What I’m about to say is not intended to be a jab at ERS employees. I’m sure all of them are fine people, and the ones I’ve met over my short career as an agricultural economist were sharp, knowledgeable people who really want to help U.S. agriculture succeed. However, I think it’s possible that living and working in D.C. has a stifling effect on one’s broader perspective of agriculture. There’s nothing wrong with boutique organic stores and high-overhead-cost hydroponics operations, but these niche businesses don’t represent the backbone of agriculture.
I’ve written in this column before about Franklin County agriculture. We have a lot of cattle, corn, and beans around here. I think it will be good for the economists at ERS to be a little bit closer to the agricultural producers who feed our nation and the world. It just might broaden their perspective and increase their focus. If it does, Franklin County producers will benefit from more effective government policy driven by the analysis of the fine folks at ERS. I hope all our new neighbors working at the USDA will feel welcome in northeast Kansas.