As winter wheat starts to mature and corn planters begin to roll, the market’s eyes are on the weekly crop progress reports issued by USDA. While the reports released each Monday of the growing season can swing markets, they’re created through a process that relies largely on windshield surveys, coffee shop talk and educated estimates from county Extension agents.
“Well of course NASS collects the information, but we're collecting it from a group of individuals across the country, primarily County Extension agents, local FSA employees, folks of that nature, who by nature of the jobs that they're doing have some knowledge of what's going on with agriculture across the entire county they report for,” Lance Honig crops branch chief of USDA-NASS told Chip Flory on AgriTalk.
When a conditions reporter says the crop is 30% poor very poor 30% fair 35% good to excellent, etc. they are determining that by what they’ve seen and heard throughout the week, Honig said.
“Looking at those definitions, they just break it out and tell us how much of the crop they think is in each of those categories and then they're going to repeat that process, week after week and of course those changes that you see week to week, that's some of the best information that you can glean from them,” he said.
Steve Johnson from Iowa State University has been contributing to crop progress reports for 15 years as a volunteer. Each Sunday night from April through November he goes for a drive on a specific route in his county of Iowa to determine what he will report the following Monday morning.
“It is very subjective, but since I’m driving the same route, it gives me good perspective year to year,” he says. “I drove 72 miles last night. It’s very easy to see planter tracks and it’s very likely that’s corn. We don’t normally plant soybeans this early.”
The process is similar on the progress side of the equation, although depending on growth stage the reporting can be more difficult.
“Obviously some of the definitions are a little easier than others,” Honig explained. “Planted is pretty straightforward as is harvested at the back end. When you get into some of those developmental stages in the middle, you need to pay close attention to the definitions and also might need a little bit more input from, you know, farmers, they come across are getting out in the fields, things of that nature.”
According to Honig, the goal is to have at least one response from each county, each week to form the report, but since there aren’t Extension agents in every county of the country anymore sometimes that can’t happen. Also, in some areas one person is reporting for multiple counties, he said.
“[The report] is every week and we give it a Sunday reference date. So we try to collect that information you know as much as we can on Monday morning,” he said. “That's when the majority of the data is reported.”
Honig explained that most report contributors do the reporting online through a secure site. The data is then reviewed by a regional office for glaring errors before it’s sent to the main office in Washington, DC.
“We look across the state boundaries as well and just make sure everything's holding together the way it should,” he explained. “It's like anything else that gets done you know mistakes can happen. And so we just want to make sure that we have an opportunity to follow back up and clear up anything that maybe didn't get reported quite right, or fill in any gaps might be there.”