Skip to content Skip to navigation

Federal News

USDA’s independent researchers vote overwhelmingly to form a union

The New Food Economy | Posted on May 12, 2019

Employees of the Economic Research Service (ERS), an independent research office nestled within the Department of Agriculture (USDA), voted on Thursday to form a union. It was something of a landslide: 138 in favor to four against. There were a handful of contested votes, but not enough to sway the results. Both ERS employees and union organizers expressed hope that workers could gain the crucial leverage need to push back on controversial, upcoming changes to ERS. In August of last year, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that ERS would lose its independent status and be relocated out of the Beltway. Perdue defended the upheaval at the time as a cost-saving measure. But as my colleague Sam Bloch reported, ERS watchers feared that the move was part of an effort by the Trump administration to weaken an office that often produced research findings that contradict or undermine the White House’s own messaging and policies.“We’ve become an easy punching bag,” one ERS employee told me at Thursday’s vote, asking to remain anonymous. “We do research that doesn’t always align with politicians’ goals. [As a union], we can gain bargaining power to protect the work that we do.” The ERS reports are a critical source of information on everything from farm income to climate impact and food prices, and they often inform the policy decisions members of Congress make on behalf of their constituents.“.Another employee, who also asked to remain anonymous, told me that in the past few months, morale within the office had plummeted drastically. And upper management’s actions didn’t do much to buoy spirits. For example, the employee told me, one former high-level leader had shared non-USDA job listings on the agency’s internal bulletin—as if to say: good luck out there.

Economists flee Agriculture Dept. after feeling punished under Trump

Politico | Posted on May 9, 2019

Economists in the Agriculture Department's research branch say the Trump administration is retaliating against them for publishing reports that shed negative light on White House policies, spurring an exodus that included six of them quitting the department on a single day in late April. The Economic Research Service — a source of closely read reports on farm income and other topics that can shape federal policy, planting decisions and commodity markets — has run afoul of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue with its findings on how farmers have been financially harmed by President Donald Trump's trade feuds, the Republican tax code rewrite and other sensitive issues, according to current and former agency employees.The reports highlight the continued decline under Trump’s watch in farm income, which has dropped about 50 percent since 2013. Rural voters were a crucial source of support for Trump in 2016, and analysts say even a small retreat in 2020 could jeopardize the president’s standing in several battleground states.

USDA economists fear crackdown on research

Politico | Posted on May 9, 2019

 Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside the Beltway has triggered a brain drain of veteran economists, amid staff complaints the administration is cracking down on research that doesn’t align with White House priorities. Perdue’s relocation plan for the agency, which some ERS members believe is retaliation for reports that are unflattering to Trump administration policies, has triggered a brain drain at ERS, your host writes today.A steady flow of veteran researchers has left ERS in recent months, including six economists with more than 50 years of experience who left on one day in late April.The number of non-retirement departures from ERS so far in fiscal 2019 is on track to be more than twice as high as the previous three-year average, according to data collected by employees.Some current and former ERS economists told POLITICO they view the relocation as a form of punishment for the agency’s findings that don’t always align with Republican arguments on issues from taxes and trade to farm subsidies, food stamps and the environment.

USDA provides blueprint for dismantling a government research agency

Union of Concerned Scientists | Posted on May 2, 2019

For scientists, it’s a significant accomplishment to get your work published in a peer-reviewed journal. The process of submitting a paper, fielding reviewer comments, and revising the work can take months (or years!), and final publication in a respected journal lends credibility to any researcher’s work. So it was odd when the Washington Post reported last week that USDA was now requiring its researchers to label outside peer-reviewed scientific publications with the word “preliminary”. But this wasn’t actually news to me. And it isn’t the only way the Trump administration is undermining the USDA’s important research role. The Trump administration can’t always control what comes out of an objective, independent research agency such as ERS. So it’s doing everything it can to get ERS (and other REE) researchers aligned with what the administration political line.One way to do that is to make it harder for scientists to publish their research or to delegitimize it with new policies such as the “preliminary” disclaimer to which ERS and other USDA REE employees are currently subject. Another way is to simply cut the funding for research that is out of line with the administration’s policy goals. The Trump administration has done just that, proposing steep funding cuts to USDA research, especially ERS, in both fiscal years 2019 and 2020.These cuts would eliminate huge swathes of research ERS conducts. The most recent budget proposal zeroes out research on food consumption and nutrition; invasive species; markets for environmental services; bioenergy and renewable energy; agricultural research investments; international food security; food and nutrition assistance; drought resilience; rural economics; beginning farmers and ranchers; and local/regional food markets.What remains is bare bones. The only research the administration wants to continue, according to its official budget document, concerns farm business, household income and wealth, agricultural cost of production, and farm practice adoption.

USDA researchers seek help from union on relocation

Daily Yonder | Posted on May 1, 2019

Besides the plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside Washington, D.C., USDA has also clamped down on the agency’s ability to disseminate its finding through academic journals, a union representative says. “The agency is trying to restrict how the ERS employees are publishing papers,” said Peter Winch, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).“They have to get an OK from USDA before submitting a paper for publication, is the change as it’s been described to me, whereas before they didn’t have to.”Winch has been working with ERS employees since late last year to explore the possibility of union representation to help address numerous concerns about how the Trump administration is re-organizing science and research at USDA. ERS employees will vote May 9 on a proposal to join AFGE.“As professional practitioners in a field, the ERS employees would be able to just send the journal articles in their respective field, and if they were published, that was a sign of the worthiness and merit of their work,” Winch said. “Their peers could tear it apart if it wasn’t done correctly. That’s how science works. Now, that’s a change in the research element at USDA, which would put the ERS researchers more directly under the secretary’s office.”

Grassley warns Trump that tariffs on Mexico and Canada will kill his NAFTA replacement

Washington Examiner | Posted on May 1, 2019

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has warned President Trump that his U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement on trade can't pass Congress if he retains steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico. "If these tariffs aren’t lifted, USMCA is dead. There is no appetite in Congress to debate USMCA with these tariffs in place," Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said

Trump administration eyes more aid to farmers if necessary: White House aide

Reuters | Posted on May 1, 2019

The Trump administration is ready to provide more federal aid to farmers if required, a White House adviser said on Monday, after rolling out up to $12 billion since last year to offset agricultural losses from the trade dispute with China. “We have allocated $12 billion, some such, to farm assistance. And we stand ready to do more if necessary,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters.The U.S. Department of Agriculture had previously ruled out a new round of aid for 2019. As of March, more than $8 billion was paid out as part of last year’s program. On Monday, the department said it had extended the deadline to apply to Ma

Trade disputes take toll on beef, pork exports

Capital Press | Posted on May 1, 2019

The trade wars with China and Mexico are cutting into U.S. exports of beef and pork. Pork exports were down 9% in volume and 17% in value year over year, the U.S. Meat Export Federation reported in its monthly trade tally.Beef exports declined 6% in volume and 3% in value. That’s a stark contrast to last year’s record-breaking performance, which brought a 7% increase in volume and a 15% increase in value.

Farm program provisions should reduce income risk not contribute to it

Ag Policy | Posted on April 24, 2019

After years of declining prices that are below the full cost of production for a large number of farmers and crops, scattered payments for some crops in a few counties are insufficient to ameliorate the growing financial crisis in farm country. So, what will things look like under the 2018 Farm Bill that begins with the 2019 crop marketing year? An article by Zulauf et. al. raises the question of fairness on the timing of the ARC/PLC election on the certainty farmers have in knowing the final marketing year price. The better they know the price, the easier the choice will be, allowing farmers to choose the program that maximizes their benefits. We looked at ten-year crop projections and though they are useful for comparing the potential impact of various farm programs, they are of little help in providing farmers with guidance in selecting the appropriate supplemental farm payment program.

USDA orders scientists to say published research is ‘preliminary’

The Washington Post | Posted on April 23, 2019

Researchers at the Agriculture Department laughed in disbelief last summer when they received a memo about a new requirement: Their finalized, peer-reviewed scientific publications must be labeled “preliminary.” The July 2018 memo from Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the acting USDA chief scientist, told researchers their reports published in scientific journals must include a statement that reads: “The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”  The claim that reports are not “formally disseminated” runs counter to the USDA policy that “permits and, indeed, encourages researchers to publish in scientific journals,” Offutt said. The disclaimer has been added to studies published in peer-reviewed journals since at least November. These include a report on pestilent moth larvae caught at the U.S. border, an analysis of food poisoning from chicken livers and a study of the SNAP food assistance program and childhood asthma.“Any scientist reading a journal, seeing that, would be very confused by this statement,” said Ed Gregorich, editor of the Journal of Environmental Quality, which frequently publishes research by USDA scientists.Peer-reviewed articles are the gold standard for sharing scientific information, Gregorich said. After a research team submits an article to a journal, the editors ask other experts in the subject to review the work. Those reviewers, often anonymous, check the study’s experimental designs, statistics and conclusions, and they can ask for revisions or reject the article if it is not scientifically sound.