With relocation, ERS losing top expert on consolidation

Thanks to the Trump administration’s decision to move the agency out of Washington, the USDA’s Economic Research Service is losing its top expert on market consolidation at a time when declining competition in agriculture is under increased scrutiny from policymakers and government officials.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue abruptly announced his plan to relocate the ERS and another USDA agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, from D.C. to Kansas City in August. Members of Congress, advocacy groups, and the agencies’ own staffs criticized the relocation, which resulted in about 75 percent of employees at both agencies opting to quit rather than move.

Among the departed staff at the ERS is James M. MacDonald, who formerly ran a branch of the agency focused on agriculture markets, productivity, and innovation. He is regarded as a leading expert on market consolidation and worked at the ERS for more than 30 years.

Laura Dodson, an economist at the ERS who worked under MacDonald and who serves as acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, described MacDonald as “the best in the country” at understanding agricultural market consolidation issues.

“I’m not sure whether people realize that this knowledge is very niche and specific, and it takes decades to be an expert in dairy market consolidation,” she said, speaking to one of MacDonald’s areas of expertise. With him gone, “we cannot answer big questions about that anymore.”

The ERS did not respond to a request for comment.

Consolidation has reshaped the agricultural economy over the past several decades, and recent mergers and acquisitions have shrunk the number of competitors in virtually every farm sector. The issue has risen to prominence recently as Democratic presidential hopefuls have made curtailing the power of agribusiness a major rural priority.

MacDonald managed a team of researchers at the ERS who focused on market consolidation, productivity reports, and innovation in agricultural technologies. He said that of the 15 or so employees working under him last year, all but three have left the agency.

The ERS broadly collects data and conducts research on the farm sector. Among its roles is serving as “a source of expertise and knowledge” for other government agencies, MacDonald told FERN’s Ag Insider in an interview.

For instance, his team would regularly consult with the Department of Justice on antitrust issues that pertained to agriculture, such as Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto or the current DOJ investigation into allegations of anticompetitive conduct in the poultry sector. “We can provide them with some guidance on what markets look like, on who competes with who,” he said.

But now, with his and other departures at the ERS, “that’ll go away,” he said. “You might find it in other parts of USDA, but it’s fair to say that [the department] has lost some of that capability in the competition issue.”

Perdue’s decision to relocate the ERS and NIFA, which funds agriculture research, was widely criticized by farm advocacy groups, members of Congress, and former and current agency employees. Perdue has argued that the move will save money and bring government workers into closer touch with rural communities.

But the relocation has so far resulted primarily in massive staff attrition: 141 of the ERS’ 181 staffers declined the offer to move to Kansas City. The remaining 40 chose to move or had their contracts extended. Just 70 of the 224 eligible employees at NIFA accepted the offer to relocate. 

Dodson said that with those departures, “almost all research areas [at the ERS] have been completely decimated.” Among the departed staff is “everybody who was working in dairy market consolidation, precision agriculture, biotechnology, our organics program, our climate change program, our crop insurance program — all gone,” she said.

An internal ERS memo circulated in September details dozens of reports that will be delayed due to the relocation and resulting staff attrition, spanning such topics as food security for veterans, obesity, foodborne illness, tariffs, and consolidation in dairy farming.

Dairy consolidation has been a particularly pressing concern for farmers as that sector faces ongoing low prices and oversupply. More than 2,700 dairy farms shuttered in 2018.

MacDonald said he experienced “a wide range of feelings and emotions” as the relocation process unfolded. “A fair amount of depression and probably a little more depressed as you got to the last month as reality came up.” 

He said that during his final days at the ERS, pictures were taken off the walls and wastebaskets were removed from all the cubicles, including those where people were still working.

He hopes to return to the ERS part-time for a year to advise on hiring and next steps for the agency. Dodson said she plans to stay at the ERS and to help rebuild as the agency recovers from staff losses, despite this “horrible” period of turmoil.

“I’m hoping that it gets better,” she said, “and maybe in a year or two, we can unwind all the damage that’s been done.”