As weather woes and prevented planting stacked up against the 2019 crop, many growers openly questioned the crop projections coming from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue recognized that angst as he spoke to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention Monday and signaled he’s open to changing the NASS methodology.
“We had some concerns about our crop reporting this year and NASS survey, in fact kind of paranoia in light of all the prevented planting and other kinds of things that were falling on us,” Perdue said. “We got a little conspiratorial thinking NASS was out to get us too.”
“Ultimately, I think we'll find out their numbers, which sort of surprised the market back in June, that they may have been more correct than the market was ultimately” Perdue added.
But that doesn’t mean Perdue sees the NASS methodology for estimating crop size as without need for improvement.
“We commit, and we're going to continue to get better,” Perdue told the Farm Bureau audience. “If you’ve got ideas on how we can better survey a using global satellites, which we’re already working with NASA, and real time data to help determine even more accuracy along with the fundamental enumerators that go around in the surveys. If you've got an idea about how we can use electronics and maybe an app for better surveys, we’d love to hear those. We're open to the kind of ideas of using modern technology to get you the best data that you can to make plans for your farm.”
But can USDA change NASS methodology without making its treasure trove of historical crop data irrelevant?
“Survey results are most meaningful when there is history to support the results and to provide meaningful analysis on the numbers,” Noted Farm Journal economist and AgriTalk Radio host Chip Flory. “NASS has that history and has been consistent in its data collection to make the history a valid comparison to new survey results – that history can either support new survey data or suggest tweaks to the results.
“New data collection methods hit the reset button. Even if survey questions are exactly the same, a new collection method makes it necessary to reassess the accuracy of the data. So if an app from USDA would ask exactly the same questions, the app will still have to prove its worth. It’s like a ripple effect… change one step in the process and it could exaggerate an error or prevent the truth from being discovered.”
Flory says changes are necessary, but NASS and USDA will need to move forward very carefully to not distort market data.
“There’s no doubt NASS has been testing new technology to make data collection more efficient,” he said. “There’s also no doubt the agency will test new technology when it becomes available. But I also don’t think there is any doubt NASS will be cautious and methodical in its adaptation of any new technology. It will have to prove its value before any new input technique is adopted.”