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Ag statistics service looks at budget

By Larry Dreiling

Hubert Hamer sees a lot of numbers in his job.

Hamer, chair of the Agricultural Statistics Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, explained how NASS compiles the 500 or more reports it issues, ranging from crop and livestock production to agricultural prices, during his opening address at the 2011 Colorado Ag Classic held recently at Loveland.

The seventh annual event was jointly hosted by the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers/Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee/Colorado Wheat Research Foundation, Colorado Corn Growers Association/Colorado Corn Administrative Committee, Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee, Colorado Sorghum Producers, Colorado Seed Growers Association and Colorado Seed Industry Association.

Hamer came into the meeting understanding that NASS could at any time see its budget being cut due to continuing fiscal negotiations between Congress and the White House.

"Obviously, you've heard about possible budget cuts and how that will affect the activities of NASS and its annual calendar of report releases," Hamer said. "We have a lot of preparation ahead of us in getting the 2012 calendar ready and so we're always looking at what we have in front of us."

During a question period, Hamer was asked how the current budget framework looks.

"There was a lot of talk during the recent budget reduction talks about cutting a large number of reports," Hamer said. "We had a lot of input to Congress from farmers and ranchers over that. The House and Senate budget conferees restored $8 million in the NASS budget to make sure that we retain some of the programs we had previously discussed discontinuing. It looks good that we'll be able to retain many of those programs."

Hamer reminded the 150 attendees that NASS does not set policy, but rather creates time-sensitive reports from the best data available to help all kinds of decision makers, from Congress to producers.

"We work to not place any external influence over the legislative process," Hamer said. "We are not allowed to disclose any kind of individual information we garner from individual farmers and ranchers. This is one of the bedrock principles of our institution."

"We also show no favoritism toward any individual, group or organization."

Though it may seem some time off, the 2012 Census of Agriculture is in the planning stages to launch with a mass mailing in December of next year, and Hamer's office is actively working to move the census forward.

"We're working on new questionnaires to go out for 2012," Hamer said. "We've been going out to farmers and ranchers with a couple of content tests to make sure the questions we ask are ones they can easily answer.

"Most of the organizations we serve want more information, but they don't want to give up the information they're currently getting. They don't want to interrupt the long running data series they now have. We don't want to place so much burden on the producer, so we want to keep the census to a reasonable level."

The data collection and processing period will be extensive, with release of the census report in February 2014.

"It seems like a long time away," Hamer said, "but this is the most comprehensive set of data collected. There's information on every county in the U.S. in the census. These data will be used for the next five years, so we want to make sure the data is as complete and accurate as possible.

"We're asking the ag community to help all farmers and ranchers be a part of the process. As funds are tight, we'll be asking producers to send back their information via the Internet as well as by mail."

In another general session speech, Reva Bhalla, of STRATFOR Global Intelligence discussed how the world geopolitical situation relates to Colorado agriculture.

Bhalla pointed out how the U.S. has a competitive advantage in wheat sales with its natural river system and its ports on both coasts, since many other countries that can grow wheat have difficulty transporting it.

"In this energy age, the costs of transporting grain over water is 30 times less expensive than over land," Bhalla said. "This simple fact means countries with robust maritime transport options extremely capital rich compared with other nations that don't have that advantage.

For example, crops on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan will often rot prior to reaching markets. Ground transportation systems there are often unreliable.

"Note the major economic powers of the last half-millennium have been countries like Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States," Bhalla said.

"They all have robust water-based transportation systems.

"The U.S. geopolitical wealth starts with the greater Mississippi River basin. Together with the Intercoastal Waterway it has more navigable internal waterways then the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is overlaid with this system of waterways creating the world's largest contiguous piece of farmland. The Atlantic coast has more major ports than the rest of the western world combined. There's also two oceans separating us from the rest of the world."

Never before has any one nation controlled all the world's sea-lanes, until the rise of the U.S. Navy.

"The U.S. Navy may not be everywhere, but it can be anywhere. No other naval force, no matter how you want to combine it with other allies, does not even come close to matching up to the force of the U.S. Navy," Bhalla said.

Given that one fact, Bhalla says don't believe any critic who says the U.S. is losing its rank as the world's superpower.

"We think about all the crises in the world, but the fact remains the U.S. economy is larger than the economies of the next four countries--Japan, China, United Kingdom and Germany--combined."

Bhalla told the audience to think of the U.S. as an empire, with its continental presence and 25 percent of the world's economic activity.

"This means that anything we do to our economy will affect the economies of other nations."

As part of the Colorado Ag Classic, CAWG held a policy resolution making session. Perhaps top on the list of policy priorities concerned the 2012 farm bill, including a resolution for a revenue based safety net, opposing any reduction to the baseline available to the federal crop insurance program--while including buy-up coverage options--and permitting a three-year phase out of direct payments.

Breakout sessions included presentations on grain marketing, the impending world food crisis and precision agriculture's role in world food needs, truck regulations and safety inspections, farm bill policy development, issues in conservation and ethanol, and a sorghum update. A workers' compensation safety meeting was also held during the day.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

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