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Data deprivation: A reality check for agriculture

By Ken Root

Editor’s note: This column was written while the federal government was shut down and before a decision was made on release of the October crop report.

Congress has shown us that this shutdown is serious business to them. It has run long enough for the initial shock to have passed, but the long-term effects are just setting in. The Republican minority wants to roll spending back but can’t. Democrats don’t have any motivation to move toward the minority’s position. It is the political conundrum of the era that is playing out as politics in Washington, D.C., but it has created unease and uncertainty in the countryside.

U.S. Department of Agriculture market reporting is moving to the top of examples of government inaction, for good reason. The October crop report numbers are especially important. This year, with an erratic summer and late harvest, many farmers are faced with limited knowledge of the crop conditions. This was to be remedied by a major report on Oct. 11. But lack of staff has led to lack of data and lack of analysis, so the report is now questionable on two fronts: accuracy and timeliness.

For many years I have been told by farmers that they don’t want USDA to release crop or livestock data because it just helps the buyers to figure out how low they can go in purchasing corn or cattle. Well, you have gotten your wish! Now that fantasy has been replaced with reality, how does it look? Some are cheering that “paper investors” don’t have any intelligence on which to trade and only “real hedgers” who need to buy or sell will be the only ones in the marketplace. Limited market movement indicates traders have temporarily moved to the sidelines to wait out the shutdown, but reports from trade media indicate the major buyers and sellers are now using alternative means to secure information. Farmers, for the most part, don’t have any other sources of unbiased and credible information except for USDA. So, the farmers who need information on which to make decisions are blind while the professionals still have a hazy view.

I’ve never had a USDA enumerator tell me they were absolutely right on a report, but they strongly contend that they are objective. The methodical process allows them to collect the same data for each report and average it together over a few thousand samples. The result is almost always questioned by the trade, primarily for what the government did not consider, but it is still considered the only unbiased reporting system in the industry. Everyone receives it and everyone can use it to help make future decisions.

There is no doubt that we have become dependent on government to provide us with information. We are often critical of its validity and use by those who wish to prove their point. There is an old line: “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” That means the unemployment statistics show good news for the party in power, whether they are up or down. Conversely, economic growth data shows the party in power is not doing its job whether the indicators are higher or lower. But there is wide agreement that the basic numbers have been derived from valid methodology.

I find it humorous that we normally complain about information overload. Now we are complaining about information deprivation. If we miss something that has been taken from us, we must assume it had value. We consider ourselves “entitled” to USDA reports and justify it by showing that they have been woven into business activities and decisions made without the data would be less accurate. That is quite a vote of confidence for something we say we don’t want.

There is another issue of humans needing constant reorientation. Do you need to know which way is north, the temperature, the wind direction or what time the sun comes up each morning? It is common to want to have information available whether it is acted upon or not. In my radio broadcasting, opening and closing markets are vitally important, every day, to people who may only sell a few times all year.

The furloughing of non-essential personnel is not the problem. It is the manifestation of two philosophies of government that are very different. The colors of the last election showed rural areas to be red (Republican) while the population centers were blue (Democrat). Republicans won the land while Democrats won the cities. Only the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans. That body is using every tool available to thwart the Democratic-controlled Senate and the president on implementing new healthcare legislation and increased government spending. The standoff is so intense that no one can come to the middle to negotiate for fear of losing their seat in the next election.

The ripples from the fight in the middle may become waves that disrupt our lives in ways that we haven’t imagined. However, I contend that we are the cause of this gridlock. In our pursuit of less government, we have sent people to govern with instructions not to do so. Due to the design of most congressional districts, a moderating voice offering a solution to the crisis is more likely to be defeated in the next election than an extreme liberal or conservative who stands against any compromise. The impact of inaction is being felt far away. In the case of agriculture, we are realizing that when they turn off the lights in D.C., it gets dark on our farms.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 10/14/2013

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