Farmer's market season is here, baby animals are grazing alongside their mothers, and field crops are mostly planted and starting to yield their bounty, signaling another season to enjoy the unique variety of foods produced here in Colorado: Everything from Palisade peaches to San Luis Valley potatoes to beef pastured and finished on the Eastern Plains.
Colorado farmers and ranchers work hard under adverse conditions to provide us with delicious food. But in addition to their efforts, much of what we take for granted in our food system relies on the agricultural research and outreach from public organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our own land grant university, Colorado State University.
One important part of our research infrastructure provides market and policy information that is critical to farmers and food consumers alike, by answering questions such as:
■ How many households in Mesa County have trouble putting food on the table?
■ What's the impact of the 2018 drought on cattle ranchers' incomes? How is that forecasted to change now that we have more moisture, but trade challenges?
■ What are some effective policies for rural counties trying to retain jobs?
These questions, and many others, are answered by the work of the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS). Research and extension at Colorado State University often relies on the data available from USDA to do everything from forecasts of wheat prices to understanding the growth in demand for local, value added, and organic foods.
But this small USDA agency is seemingly under attack within this administration, for no apparent reason other than doing the job of providing sound information to policy makers.
Last summer, the USDA announced that ERS be physically relocated outside the Washington D.C. area, fragmenting these analysts from the policy makers who seek their analysis and applied research. Further challenges are found in the president's proposed budget for fiscal 2020, which would slash the agency's budget by one-third. Taken together, these actions represent an attempt to weaken and gradually dismantle the agency.
On June 13, the USDA announced that ERS would be relocated to Kansas City, along with the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA's major research granting agency for land grant universities in all 50 states. The reasons given for include saving money on rent and bringing the agency closer to stakeholders. But the analysis of cost-savings failed to consider lower cost locations within the capital region, or the substantial up-front costs of relocating hundreds of staff within a few months, in addition to disrupting important price and market reports through the harvest season.
Moreover, bringing the agency closer to stakeholders in one state means that its research is less focused on the needs in the other 49 states. A focus on Midwestern agriculture — corn, soybeans, cattle, and hogs — will not serve the interests of farmers in specialty crops, like peaches or grapes, or the needs of agriculture in more challenging environments, like the arid-cropping and pasture systems of western Colorado. Unlike the Bureau of Land Management in the Department of Interior, and many other federal agencies, these USDA agencies do not administer programs or manage properties outside of Washington, D.C., so there is little rationale for them to be located in specific regions.
Major news outlets have reported on how the proposed changes have resulted in a devastating loss of staff (Fox; CNN; New York Times). There has been a broad-based call for halting these changes from more than 80 leaders in the agricultural research community, including past USDA officials who have served under both political parties, and as well as from over 75 independent organizations with a stake in the U.S. food system.
We believe that Colorado farmers and ranchers need the best support possible as they face all the challenges inherent in a variable climate and an evolving set of local and global demand conditions. A strong national data and research system is particularly important to a state like ours, where agriculture is diverse and faces unique environmental challenges. Now is the time for a stronger agricultural research system, not for dismantling key pieces. We urge Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner to stand up for science at USDA and prevent the USDA secretary from dismantling the Economic Research Service agency.
Dawn Thilmany is professor of agricultural and resource economics, Colorado State University.
Laurian Unnevehr is a retired professor of agricultural economics, University of Illinois, and adjunct faculty, Colorado State University.