The USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) performs a vital function for U.S. and world agriculture markets by providing “a complete, accurate picture of American agriculture at any given time or during any growing season,” said Becky Cross, director of the Arkansas NASS field office, at the recent Arkansas State University Agribusiness Conference in Jonesboro, Ark. “Our mission is to provide timely, accurate, unbiased statistics in service to agriculture.”

NASS “is totally a service organization. We have no regulatory powers or functions. NASS has no political appointees in its ranks. That includes the administrator — so our administrator is a federal career employee.”

Cross, who has over 27 years of experience with NASS and previously served as director of the New Jersey field office as well as serving as deputy director of the Louisiana field office, said she is “a career federal employee and a daughter of a career soldier … Like my father before me, I’ve spent my entire life in service to America — particularly in service to American agriculture. As far as I’m concerned I might as well work for Homeland Security because I believe our nation’s true strength lies in the fact that we can feed ourselves as well as many others around the world. We also produce fiber and fuel from our abundant supply of agriculture production.”

NASS and its employees are forbidden from using any gathered information for personal gain. Anyone associated with the agency is “not allowed to play in the commodities market. We really care about what we’re doing and care about doing a great job of estimating U.S. agricultural supply.”

The scope of NASS agriculture information is extensive. “We provide crop acreage, yield, production, price, stocks, livestock inventory, slaughter, weekly broilers in (Arkansas), labor, land values, cash rents, chemical use, cost of production — quite a variety of information, virtually all Congressionally-mandated.”

And to provide such data, NASS — which has eight field supervisors and a staff of 60 field personnel in Arkansas to collect and parse data — conducts surveys.

“We go to the places where we can get that best information: farmers, ranchers, businesses and the field. We collect data by mail, telephone, Internet and personal interview.”

NASS forecasts and estimates are based on “statistically sound” surveys, said Cross. “I don’t believe producers would be willing to provide information to us unless they thought it would be valuable to them. And they understand anything they tell us will be held in the strictest confidence and used only in aggregate form with other farmers’ data to provide national and state estimates of agriculture production. Individual information is guaranteed complete confidentiality.”

NASS estimates are held securely until a pre-set release time, said Cross. “Everyone gets the information at the same time. The only things we publish are totals and averages.

“When available, we do use administrative data to help support — and even sometimes to guide — some of our estimates. For example, we use FSA acreage data, cotton ginnings when it comes available to ‘true up’ our estimates. We’re always looking at all pieces of the puzzle.”

Information sources

NASS needs public information “because of the nature of the agriculture markets. There are many, many producers and relatively few buyers. Public information on current market prices based on current, known supply and demand for a product keeps everyone on a level playing field. It isn’t a perfect market but it’s the best, I think, that exists in the world today.

“All sorts of information can move markets: weather forecasts, trade agreements, changes in currency values, projected shortfalls or surpluses in other countries, expert opinion and speculation. Even misinformation can move a market up and down, readily.”

Through the NASS regularly-scheduled calendar of reports “we provide unbiased estimates of agriculture production, usually causing the markets to adjust upwards or downwards a little, bringing them back to equilibrium.”

Ultimately, why is it important that NASS exist?

“Well, without this public, unbiased source, market information would primarily be controlled by buyers, giving them the advantage. This was true during the Civil War in 1863 when USDA established the Division of Statistics, which (NASS) traces its roots back to.”

NASS information serves all market participants including “buyers, suppliers, food processors, input providers — just about anyone interested in agriculture, including researchers and policymakers.”

Voluntary/mandatory

While the Census of Agriculture involves mandatory reporting, it is the only such NASS product. “All of our weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual surveys are all voluntary reporting,” said Cross. “We count on the producers understanding the importance of what we’re trying to do for them and give them a few minutes to tell us about their farming operation.”

Agricultural research, supports and disaster funding are all tied to NASS numbers. Since that’s the case, “it’s very important (farmers) work with us.

“No matter what anyone tells you, all names, addresses and individual data are held in the strictest confidence. We’ve been tested by the Freedom of Information Act and the state version, the Open Public Records Act. And we’ve always prevailed.”

NASS takes farmers’ privacy “very, very seriously. I don’t think producers — like some of you — would be willing to talk to us if they thought their information would be used for any other purpose than to provide estimates at the state and national level for crops and livestock.”

NASS also protects summarized data — “which is basically the only thing we publish — from disclosure until the date and time it has been publicly announced that it will be published. In other words, everyone gets the information at exactly the same time.”

For up-to-date information about the current growing season, inventory, and stocks or prices visit NASS at www.usda.gov.

The census Web site can be accessed at www.agcensus.usda.gov.

The Arkansas NASS Web site can be accessed at Arkansas.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com