Fargo seeks to land USDA research offices with hundreds of jobs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to move some of its researchers from Washington, D.C., to new locations around the country. Fargo will be one of them if a coalition of North Dakota and Fargo-area groups is successful.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to move some of its researchers from Washington, D.C., to new locations around the country. Fargo will be one of them if a coalition of North Dakota and Fargo-area groups is successful.

It's unclear how many jobs potentially could come to Fargo, or when it might happen. USDA officials have said they hope to open the new locations by the end of 2019, and that a decision will be made in January. Monday, Oct. 15, was the last date to submit what USDA terms "expressions of interest" for the new USDA Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture headquarters.

The Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation on Monday submitted an application to host the proposed locations, according to information from the office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Lisa Gulland-Nelson, senior vice president of investor relations for the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp., declined to comment, citing competitive factors.

But the application is to host both ERS and NIFA, said Hoeven, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee and a member of the Senate Ag Committee.

Support, opposition

In August, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the ERS and NIFA would move from Washington, D.C., to new, undetermined locations around the country.

The ERS employs 330 people who provide economic research on, and analysis of, emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment and rural America, as well as global trade and food safety.

The NIFA has about 360 employees who promote agriculture-related sciences.

It's unclear if all those employees would have jobs at the new locations.

Supporters say the proposal would cut costs, promote economic development outside Washington, D.C., and give the relocated USDA employees a broader perspective.

But USDA's plan has drawn strong and widespread criticism.

Purdue's August announcement came with virtually no advance notice and was based on little, if any, input from people involved in agriculture, said Mike Lavender, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists' food and environment program.

"We need facts and data and evidence-based resource to be a key component of the policymaking process," which the proposed changes threaten, Lavendar said.

On Oct. 1, more than 1,000 scientists and economists from across the country sent a letter to congressional leaders, opposing the Trump administration proposal. The letter cites concern that the changes will threaten scientific integrity at both the ERS and NIFA by separating their research from policymaking.

Another criticism, from the American Statistical Association, is that many ERS employes now in Washington will be reluctant or unwilling to leave the nation's capital, leading to a loss of highly skilled and experienced employees.

Some members of Congress also have expressed concern. For instance, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the committee's ranking Democrat, wrote to Perdue with questions about the proposal.

Stiff competition

Hoeven said that as chairman of the Senate Ag Appropriations Committee, he'll work with Perdue and other USDA official to accomplish the reorganization.

"The priority is doing the best job possible for farmers and ranchers," and a Fargo location for either ERS or NIFA or both would help do so, he said.

A number of cities and states, especially ones with close ties to agriculture, are said to be interested in landing the new USDA locations.

Hoeven acknowledged there will be "very stiff competition" for the locations. "But we know we can compete with anybody," especially because North Dakota State University, which has a prominent role in ag research, is in Fargo, he said.

Applications will be evaluated on logistics, workforce, community/quality of life and capital costs, according to Hoeven's office.

NDSU, the state Department of Commerce, the Bank of North Dakota, the city of Fargo, the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce, and the state congressional delegation all have been involved in the effort to bring the USDA location to Fargo, according to information from Hoeven's office.