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Chair Plaskett Opening Statement at Hearing to Review Implementation of USDA Farm Bill Research Programs

WASHINGTON- House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research Chair Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands delivered the following remarks today at the hearing to review implementation of USDA Farm Bill research programs.

[As Prepared for Delivery]

"Good morning and thank you for joining us today as we review USDA’s implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill research programs with Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics Scott Hutchins.

"Strong investments in public agriculture research have historically allowed our farmers, ranchers, and rural communities to remain competitive and increase their overall productivity. These investments are more critical now than ever, with the agriculture sector attempting to adapt to a changing climate and manage for increasingly volatile markets.

"In June, I hosted a hearing in which members of this Subcommittee heard directly from farmers and researchers about the need for continued scientific advancements. Their message was clear – farmers and ranchers benefit from investments in public agriculture research and strong extension services.

"I believe that this Subcommittee, and the full House Agriculture Committee, understands the value of trusted science. The 2018 Farm Bill emphasized our commitment to this cause and ensured that U.S. farmer and ranchers will have the tools necessary to deal with future challenges.This can be seen in the increased support for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, continued support for programs like the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, and the creation of new programs to support urban agriculture and students at 1890 institutions.

"My district has benefitted from sustained investments in local researchers. Just last year, the University of the Virgin Islands received over $3 million from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).These funds have been critical in helping my farmers and ranchers overcome challenges associated with climate change, tropical pest pressures, and resource management.

"Following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, this Subcommittee has turned its focus to USDA’s implementation efforts. It is my goal to ensure USDA is swiftly and efficiently getting resources into the hands of researchers. At a time of continued farm stress, it should be USDA’s top priority to support research efforts that directly benefit farmers.

"However, we cannot discuss Farm Bill implementation without addressing what I believe will be a major impediment to USDA’s ability to effectively administer programs and complete timely economic studies – the relocation of NIFA and ERS outside the National Capital Region.

"In a previous hearing, we heard farmers and researchers express apprehension about the relocation proposal. They cited a lack of stakeholder engagement and strong concerns over program continuity as reasons for their opposition to Secretary Perdue’s proposal. Chair Marcia Fudge and I sent a letter to the Secretary raising these concerns, and I can honestly say I was disappointed in his response and failure to outline a clear, robust plan for how these agencies would prevent gaps in services.

"Unfortunately, I believe my fears are becoming true. This week, I received updates on staffing levels and the status of Fiscal Year 2019 funding. ERS has appropriated funding to support 329 employees, but currently, a total of 214 positions are vacant - a vacancy rate of 65%. To put it bluntly, NIFA is in even worse shape.Out of 344 appropriated positions, 264 are currently vacant – a vacancy rate over 76%. I was told these extreme staff shortages mean some grant recipients will not receive their funds until March 2020.

"These gaps in service reinforce the notion that this relocation was hurried, misguided, and mismanaged. ERS and NIFA have been undermined at the very time these agencies require knowledgeable staff to implement Farm Bill changes, administer grants, and complete critical economic reports.Our farmers and ranchers deserve better, and so do the valued career public servants who have left their positions within ERS and NIFA for other opportunities.

"As Subcommittee Chair, I expect ERS and NIFA to quickly be restored to their former prominence. Dr. Hutchins, the members of this Subcommittee are looking to you and Secretary Perdue to work expeditiously and deliberately to prevent further gaps in service. This must be a top priority for you and Secretary Perdue, and I expect to see tangible results rather than hear lip service. If results are not delivered and programs continue to suffer, we will continue this discussion in the future."

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