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Views and opinions: On producer optimism and time delays: NASS dishes on the data


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The process by which the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) creates its crop production and acreage reports is designed to provide accurate data as of the date the information is collected, officials with the agency said.

Two recent reports – June 28 and August 12 – have drawn criticism from some industry observers and market analysts who said the numbers didn’t correctly reflect what farmers had planted or were expected to produce. Farm World spoke with some USDA officials about how information is gathered and reviewed for the reports.

“What wasn’t understood (about the June acreage report) is it was based on acres already planted and what farmers said they intended to plant on June 1,” explained David Knopf, regional director of the NASS Eastern Mountain regional field office, which includes Kentucky and Tennessee.

“If something happens between when the data is collected and reports are released, that won’t be reflected in the report. We’re not predicting what it will be, but trying to establish production based on current conditions.”

Information in the August 12 report was based on current conditions around the first of the month, he noted. The agency collected data from late July through early August.

Because wet weather delayed planting in many areas, the August report also contained the results of a second round of questions for farmers who said prior to the June report, they had acreage not yet planted for corn, soybeans, and other crops. Farmers in 14 states – including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio – were contacted again.

In compiling the August report, NASS also looked at Farm Service Agency certified acreage information and satellite data when updating planted and harvested acreage.

The production and acreage reports are a “snapshot in time,” said Mark Schleusener, Illinois state statistician. For example, farmers were asked in early June what their planting intentions were as of June 1. The acreage report was released on June 28.

“When I hear criticism, it reminds me we are like an umpire at a baseball game,” he explained. “We call fair or foul, balls and strikes. Someone is not going to like the call. When we publish a number, some people won’t like it. Some producers weren’t happy with those numbers. We try to explain our procedures.”

There has to be a valid statistical methodology used to have confidence in the data, Knopf said, adding the statistics go through a rigorous process to ensure accuracy. A representative sample of farmers – about 21,000 nationwide for the August report – were contacted.

The pool of producers remains the same for each growing season but changes annually.

“For August, we asked farmers what they expected their yields to be,” Knopf explained. “In September through November, we’ll also include data from field plots. These are independent of a person’s opinion.

“The people who use information from the reports must understand it is somewhat subjective. It’s based on an individual’s best guess on what yield might be, and sometimes they’re off.”

After the data are collected, it goes through a computer algorithm and is also examined by someone from NASS. Statisticians look for consistency in the data and may contact a farmer if they’re uncertain about the numbers, he said.

Producers tend to be pessimistic about yields early in the season, Schleusener pointed out. “As we get into September and October – by then, some or many will have harvested some corn acres – they recalibrate up or down. In the August, September, October, and November reports, we look at monthly changes in farmer-reported yield. We also ask if they’re done harvesting.”

Farmer responses to NASS surveys are confidential, he said.

After the data are compiled and analyzed, it’s summarized at the state level. Secondary sources, such as weather data, crop conditions, and observations by NASS staff, extension agents, and industry contacts, are also considered, Knopf said.

After data at the statewide level are compiled, it is submitted to NASS headquarters, where a board of 6-8 people review it before the data’s released.

Some market analysts questioned whether NASS should have delayed the June 28 report until more farmers had the opportunity to plant. “It’s important for NASS to publish a report when we say we’re going to publish one,” Schleusener noted.

“If there’s a freeze in Florida in January or February that impacts the strawberry crop, that will show up in a NASS report. Stores may have to find a different supplier, the transportation industry may have to make adjustments, California growers might market their strawberries differently.”

NASS reports such as Crop Production, Grain Stocks, and Plantings are considered principal economic indicators for the country. Other indicators include housing starts, employment, gross domestic product, retail sales, durable goods sales, and earnings.

Knopf said NASS does the best it can for producers and others who use the data.

“Maybe I’ve heard criticism enough that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I still take it seriously. There are very informed people who make those comments. If someone says something like that, I need to examine what we’re doing and what we’re saying. If markets react in a negative way, to a farmer, that affects his or her business.”