Guest Commentary

Sonny Perdue is turning his back on USDA employees and rural America

Employees protest plan to move USDA jobs to Kansas City

The USDA’s decision to move hundreds of research jobs out of Washington to Kansas City has triggered a backlash among federal employees. Employees stood in silent protest during a meeting about the move to Kansas City.
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The USDA’s decision to move hundreds of research jobs out of Washington to Kansas City has triggered a backlash among federal employees. Employees stood in silent protest during a meeting about the move to Kansas City.

You may not know me, but I am one of you. I was born and raised on the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri, in a rural setting. I come from a farming family that harvested tobacco for generations on the same land where I took my earliest steps. I was a member of my local 4-H chapter and my father taught me how to grow crops. I learned my professional skills from undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Missouri.

I’m also one of the hundreds of United States Department of Agriculture employees who have been directed to relocate to a temporary workplace in Kansas City by Sept. 30, while the search for a permanent site in the area is conducted.

USDA employees are not the “beltway elites” that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue characterizes us as. I’m one of you. My story at the USDA’s Economic Research Service, or ERS, is also not unique. Many of my colleagues came from the heartland to represent rural America right here in our national capital, 15 miles up the Potomac River from George Washington’s farm at Mount Vernon.

We are federal employees who are dedicated to our mission: “Do right and feed everyone.” We study the many issues affecting the diverse fabric of American agriculture and rural communities. We are longtime professionals: agricultural economists, social scientists, statisticians, nutritionists and geographers and more.

We are your family and former neighbors who moved out of town and still come home to visit. Our staff hails from Hawaii to Maine and nearly every place in between. Most are from small towns and farming communities. A majority of us, like myself, are from the Midwest and graduated from your regional colleges and universities.

The ERS is the kind of place that embodies the public service values we grew up with back home, and folks with our experiences help make Washington, D.C., work better and expand its perspectives. But Perdue’s plan doesn’t make the USDA work better. It has created incredible dysfunction in federal service that did not exist prior to his announcement — an abrupt relocation to a still-unspecified location without public debate, comments or congressional approval.

During Perdue’s announcement of Kansas City as the new location for the ERS and the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, we chose to turn our backs to him, to mirror the secretary — as he continues to turn his back on American farmers. His plan is silencing necessary research and analysis that our land grant universities, 1890s colleges, extension system and the private sector use on a daily basis to communicate critical data to American farmers. We are a voice in the capital for rural America, made up of rural Americans, bringing data-driven analysis to the public sphere.

We work at the USDA because we want to help farmers and everyone in the agricultural sector to make the best, most informed decisions they can. But by forcing this move on a rushed time line, Perdue is cutting us off at the knees.

When reporters asked Perdue how the relocation would personally impact his employees, he went off script long enough to reveal how seriously he takes us and our work by saying, “I understand that no one ever wants their cheese moved.”

If Kansas City doesn’t slow down the current reckless speed of this move, you’ll host the gutted shell of an agency that may never fully recover. You don’t want that, and we don’t want that.

I’m one of you. As a son of the Show-Me State, I need leadership to show me why relocating us from Washington, D.C., is right for us and the Midwest. USDA employees just want the chance to do our vital jobs right, so that we can keep being a voice for rural America.

Kevin Hunt is acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403.

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