No politics, high-level security keep USDA reports legit
It’s not uncommon to hear rumblings in farm country about the validity of USDA’s reports. Is influence exerted on those preparing the data? Can the market-sensitive information find its way out early?
After experiencing the lockup procedure used by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) to prepare the March 31 Prospective Plantings report, three farmers agree that there are no politics at play and security is tight.
The process used to produce and release more than 500 national statistical reports each year starts with the information farmers provide. USDA field offices collect, analyze and edit the information in a secure environment. It is then sent to the Agricultural Statistics Board to be encrypted before it is sent to Washington, D.C.
Once in lockup, USDA statisticians are literally behind locked doors, guarded by an armed officer. No outside communication is allowed, and visitors surrender electronic devices. Surveillance technology detects any transmission of signals, and all blinds are secured. Once all these measures are in place, the data is unencrypted.
"Security for the NASS reports is top-notch," says Illinois farmer Pat Solon. There are even penalties for NASS employees who violate the confidentiality of the information: five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The USDA staff take their role very seriously and are professionals, says Pat Duncanson, a Minnesota farmer. "They have a genuine interest in how their work is received in the country. When I think about the type of data they are charged with collecting and organizing, it is amazing that they do as good a job as they do," he adds.
Perhaps the key to the whole process, says Colorado farmer Dan Anderson, is farmers providing accurate information to NASS. "The data is only as good as the states and their survey producers are able to report," he notes.
The data released by NASS is a "snapshot in time," Duncanson says. "The Prospective Plantings report is a survey of farmer intentions a month before the report is released. It is not a survey of current economic or production intentions."
That probably won’t stop the speculation about the NASS data. "Market analysts often want to read more into the report," Duncanson says.
His advice: "Use the report for what it says it is, and make guesstimates beyond it if you must."
Farmers say they intend to plant 92.2 million acres of corn, which is 5% higher than the 2010 final acreage number. If realized, and with a national yield of 163 bu. per acre, this would make for a
13.83 billion bushel crop. Usage for the 2010–11 marketing year is estimated at 13.5 billion bushels. Corn stocks are listed at 6.52 billion bushels as of March 1, which is 15% lower than the same time in 2010. Trade is predicted to be 6.690 billion bushels.
Intended soybean plantings are estimated at 76.6 million acres, which is 1% lower than 2010’s figure. Soybean stocks are projected at 1.25 billion bushels, versus a trade guess of 1.299 billion bushels.
Wheat seedings are estimated at 58 million acres, up 8% from last year. Winter wheat accounts for 41.2 million acres, and other wheat crops equal 14.4 million acres. Wheat stocks are 1.43 billion bushels, with a trade guess of 1.399 billion bushels.
Cotton acreage is estimated at 12.6 million acres, 15% higher than this past year.