NASS to Work with Farm Bureau on Report Improvements

The American Farm Bureau Federation last month issued recommendations to improve the accuracy and farmer trust in crop reports issued by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The recommendations fell in two areas: increasing transparency and embracing the use of more technology.

The Chief of the Crops Branch at NASS, Lance Honig, spoke at length with Farm Journal about the challenges and opportunities presented by the Farm Bureau Report.

“We really appreciate the partnership that we have with Farm Bureau,” Honig said. “We appreciate the fact that they've got an interest in the work that we're doing, and they have a shared interest with us to continually improve on the work that we do, and not just the work itself, but also the relationship. Not just the relationship with Farm Bureau, but the relationship with their membership, the relationship with the farmers across America who are such a critical part of not only the work we do, but the reason that we do the things that we do.”

Several of the suggestions made by Farm Bureau are already being implemented by NASS, according to Honig. The agency has increased its outreach to farmers over the past couple of years through expanded interviews with ag outlets and the #Statchat conversation on Twitter following most major reports. NASS has also been embracing an expanded use of satellite technology.

“In recent years, we've started to see some significant gains in the accuracy of satellite data in estimating yield or forecasting yield during the growing season, and so we’ve begun to incorporate that data a little bit more into our process, supplementing the survey work that we do both directly from farmers and also the objective yield work that we do where we actually send trained enumerators into fields to ground truth that data,” Honig said. “But again, the reason that we're not relying completely on the satellite data is because it has its limitations as well. And so that's why when we see new sources like this, we'd like to bring them in, integrate them into our process. But we also have to be aware of the shortcomings that they have and use other information to help supplement that as well.”

NASS has been using satellite data for decades, Honig points out, but it has become a significant part of NASS’ reporting in just the past few years. In addition to yield estimates, satellite imagery is used as part of the planted acres calculations, according to Honig.

He also points out that NASS has a research unit that is constantly evaluating new technologies and how they might impact NASS reporting.

“We know that as technology continues to evolve, we're going to continue to evaluate different ways of utilizing that new technology, whether it's satellite based, whether it's precision ag, whatever type of information that might be new database structures, more data sharing across USDA across other organizations. We are always evaluating that, constantly looking at it,” he said.

But the challenge is making sure that the introduction of new technologies and methods doesn’t fundamentally change the reporting done by NASS.

“We need to be cautious about not completely changing a data series, just because the process changes a little bit or because we're looking at different things, but also, because it takes time to evaluate some of these new technologies and these new data sources to ensure that we're going to have everything that we need to feed into the process. We need to understand how it's going to integrate into the process and everything else that we're utilizing along the way in that process,” Honig explained. “I think there's definitely room for changes in the future. But exactly trying to put a timeline on that, we can't really do that, because we've got to make sure we do our homework. We've got to make sure that everything's fully vetted and analyzed. And we have to know that it's not only available today, we need to know that that's going to be available on an ongoing basis moving forward, whatever that new technology or data source might be.”

Ultimately, the Farm Bureau recommendations and the NASS response boil down to trust. The markets need to trust the data coming from NASS, and, more importantly, farmers need to trust the data from NASS, not only for marketing decisions, but they need to trust the process so that they want to contribute to it.

“I think if we can increase transparency, if we can make it more clear exactly what we're doing, how we're doing it, what the motivation is for doing that, I think that's going to speak directly to some of the trust,” Honig said. “There was a lot of input in there about different ways that we could reach out to folks. So, it's not just providing more information, but finding more ways to engage with them, because we agree that trust is critical to the process, first and foremost, because farmers are our customers and so we certainly want them to trust the information that we're providing. But also, they're supplying a large portion of the information that we use to feed the reports. And so,we really benefit not only from that within NASS, but farmers are going to benefit from that themselves as well. Because as with any data driven process, the more information you have coming in, the better the result is going to be going out.”

NASS has long invited ag leaders and others to join the lock up at USDA where the data is analyzed and reports generated in a locked room with no outside communication to give interested parties a first-hand look at the process of sorting through the datasets. Farm Bureau suggested a sort-of lock up road show, where a mock version of the process could be shown to larger groups across the country. Honig welcomed the idea.

That kind of transparency quickly knocks down notions that NASS has conflicting motives in evaluating the crop data, he said.

“We've got one interest and one interest only and that's providing the most accurate information and making it available to everyone at exactly the same time,” he said. “We have no vested interest whatsoever in what those results are, we just want them to be accurate. And we want them to be based on information, based on data. Everything we do as a statistical organization is data driven.”

Another suggestion from Farm Bureau already embraced by NASS is the use of special notes when weather events or other anomalies might impact the reported data. Honig noted that the agency started putting the special note boxes at the top of some reports last year as weather events like the derecho in Iowa impacted crop numbers.

Ultimately, Honig said he looks forward to working with Farm Bureau and all other stakeholders to continue the conversation and find new ways to increase transparency and fine tune accuracy of NASS reporting.


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