DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture will close 259 domestic offices, labs and other facilities as part of an effort to save $150 million per year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday.
While the closures and other cost-cutting steps will affect the USDA headquarters in Washington and operations in 46 states, the savings will be relatively small in the context of the agency's $145 billion budget.
The closures follow a review of USDA operations done as part of the Obama administration's efforts to cut waste, Vilsack said.
Congress, he said, has reduced the USDA operating budget creating the challenge of finding ways to maintain services with fewer employees.
"Our workload is at record highs, we have less money and fewer people and work to do and we tried to address how do you do that without interrupting service," Vilsack said after speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation in Honolulu.
He said $90 million in savings has already been achieved through reductions in travel and supplies and the closing of the offices should result in an additional $60 million savings.
The USDA released fact sheets listing the areas where the offices would be closed. The agency said many had few employees and were near other offices, but Andrew Lorenz, deputy district manager for USDA's food safety and inspection office in Minneapolis, estimated 12 to 14 of the 16 people in his office would lose their jobs when it closed.
He said he was surprised the USDA was shutting down so many offices that handle food inspections in one region, with additional closures in Madison, Wis., and Lawrence, Kan.
"They wiped out the entire Midwest," Lorenz said.
Food safety offices in Chicago and Des Moines remain open.
Vilsack said 7,000 USDA employees over the past year have taken advantage of early-retirement programs, and he did not anticipate wide scale layoffs with the closures, which are expected to occur by this spring.
"We're going to do everything possible to avoid that," he said. "These closures are part of an overall process for making sure we don't have to have furloughs or layoffs."
He also said it's easier to do some USDA work online, allowing workers in district and regional offices to continue serving customers at the county level.
Some closures had already been announced. The USDA said last year it would shut down 10 agricultural research stations, including the only one in Alaska, as the Obama administration looked to cut $42 million from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service budget.
In Alaska, researchers had been looking for ways to use the vast waste generated by the largest wild fishery in the nation to make everything from gel caps for pills to fish meal for livestock feed. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported last month that the scientists would transfer elsewhere by March, ending that work.
The USDA manages a wide array of programs, from emergency aid for farmers to grants for rural development and food assistance programs for the poor.
Along with the Agricultural Research and Food Safety services, seven other departments will be affected by closures, including the Farm Service Agency and Rural Development. Seven foreign offices will be closed.
Public hearings will be held in those counties where Farm Service Agency offices are to be closed.
Kevin Ross, 31, a sixth-generation farmer in Iowa, expressed concern about how services would be affected. Farmers could drop out of programs if they have to travel long distances, he said.
"Access to agencies is a big deal, especially in rural areas," said Ross, who grows 400 acres of corn on his farm near Minden. "It's easy to say it looks like great cost savings, but I hope they are careful and strategic in their decisions."
But Bruce Babcock, a farm economist at Iowa State University and director of the school's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, said consolidation was a long time coming, given that advances in technology made it possible to file applications and do other tasks over the phone or online.
He said he's more concerned about the USDA's ability to maintain programs that deal with disease prevention.
"The capability to collect data and do the behind the scenes activities that really help U.S. agriculture stay safe, that should be concerning," Babcock said.
Colin Woodall, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents more than 147,000 ranchers nationwide, applauded the USDA for trying to save taxpayers' money in tight economic times, but reserved further comment until his group understands the extent of the consolidation.
"There are some drawbacks," Woodall said Monday evening. "We can't say this is all great news because some offices will be closed. We have to make sure we have the process in place to keep food safe."
Vilsack said the proposed cuts, along with other cost-saving measures such as consolidating cellphone plans, will allow the USDA to continue making investments, including maintaining credit to farmers, providing aid to beginning farmers and scientific research, that has helped U.S. agriculture experience its most productive period in history.
"Over the long haul, we believe farmers and ranchers across the country will be better served by the choices we made," he said.
Associated Press writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis, Dan Joling in Anchorage, Alaska, and Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this report.