MADISON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the City of Madison have a long history of collaboration, including strong ties with the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The collaboration may continue in the future in a new way as the City of Madison and UW-Madison are being considered as the new homes of the USDA’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
In August, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that most ERS and NIFA personnel would be moving to outside the National Capital Region near Washington, D.C., by the end of 2019 and invited interested parties to submit proposals detailing why their community, educational institution, nonprofit organization, state and county development agency, municipality or for-profit entity would be a perfect fit for the relocation.
On Oct. 22, Perdue announced that 136 parties in 35 states had submitted proposals expressing interest, with the only proposal from Wisconsin, a collaborative one submitted by the City of Madison; UW-Madison CALS; UW-Madison Office of University Relations; University Research Park; Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; and 910 Mayer LLC, the company that owns the now-closed Oscar Mayer meat-packing plant on Madison’s east side.
In a letter to Perdue, DATCP secretary Sheila Harsdorf outlined why the former meat-packing plant would be an “ideal headquarters location for NIFA and ERS.”
“The space was established nearly a century ago as a small farmer’s co-op meat packing plant, and today stands ready to house offices that will benefit and bolster the nation’s agriculture industry for the next century and beyond,” Harsdorf said.
In addition, Wisconsin is “located in the heart of the nation” and “is known for its diverse agriculture industry, from on-farm production and innovative processing, to cutting edge-technology and scientific research,” she said.
Bill Barker, Associate Dean for Research for CALS at UW-Madison, added that having “one of the best land-grant universities in the world” also makes Madison a great place for the relocated USDA entities.
“We take our role as an economic engine very seriously,” Barker said. “We also feel like Wisconsin has a dynamic and diverse agriculture economy, and we feel it would be an outstanding place for the USDA’s NIFA arm and ERS.”
Madison has consistently been ranked one of the best places to live in terms of quality of life and is affordable compared to Washington, D.C., where the former offices are located, Barker added. UW-Madison’s long-standing relationship with the USDA is also a positive, as is the highly skilled and creative workforce coming out of the university — workers that could potentially staff the new NIFA and ERS offices in the future.
Barker said he feels the collaborative parties submitted quite a strong proposal, with the Oscar Mayer plant a perfect location due to its proximity to the Dane County Airport and Wisconsin’s interstate system.
Neighboring states that also submitted proposals include Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. Six cities in Iowa expressed interest, including the City of Ankeny, City of West Des Moines, City of Ames (in conjunction with Iowa State University), City of Council Bluffs, City of Des Moines and the Quad Cities, located both in Iowa and Illinois. Thirteen entities in Illinois submitted proposals of interest, including parties in Algonquin, Greater Peoria, Warrenville, Schaumburg, DuPage County, Kane County, Decatur, Orland Park, Huntley, Des Plaines, Champaign and Barrington.
In Michigan, several entities collaborated to submit a proposal on behalf of East Lansing; in Minnesota, the University of Minnesota partnered with several other entities to submit a proposal on behalf of Minneapolis. Parties in Shakopee and Falcon Heights, Minn. also submitted proposals.
“The interest across the country has been overwhelming as localities, universities, private entities and elected officials realize the potential for their communities to become the new home for these two agencies,” Perdue said. “It is an old saying that not all wisdom resides in Washington, D.C., but it is gratifying to see so many folks step forward wanting to prove that to be the case.
“We look forward to working with (a professional service) in examining all of the proposals and selecting the new location.”
USDA intends to select the new location or locations by January 2019 and will retain a consultant with expertise in relocation. Every employee who wants to continue working at ERS and NIFA will have the opportunity to relocate and will be offered relocation assistance and locality pay for the new location.
The undertaking of relocations is being considered for a variety of reasons, including moving USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, realizing significant savings on employment costs and rent and to improve the USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.