Ag Policy Blog

Perdue Defends NASS, But Open to Crop Survey Changes

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2018. In this year's speech, Perdue highlighted NASS crop production data and his belief NASS is closer to correct than the market expected. (DTN file photo)

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended his department's statistical agency at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Austin, Texas, on Monday, but said USDA would be open to hearing any ideas from farmers or others about ways to make USDA crop reports more accurate.

Saying he heard from Farm Bureau leaders on several key topics in 2019, Perdue noted in his speech to Farm Bureau members that farmers raised concerns throughout the year about the crop reporting at the National Agricultural Statistics Service survey.

"We got kind of paranoia in light of all the prevented planting and other kind of things that were falling on us," Perdue said. "We got a little conspiratorial thinking NASS was out to get us too."

Crop reports throughout the summer delivered a couple of shocks to the market. One surprise came in the June Acreage report in which NASS reported 91.7 million acres of corn, up 2.6 million acres and just off the March forecast of 92 million acres. The high corn acreage came despite unknown prevented-planting acreage at that time that came in at just under 20 million acres. Soybean planting in the June report came in at 80 million acres, down 9.2 million acres from a year earlier, but just 4.6 million acres below the March intentions.

The August production report was another one that shocked the market with an average projected corn yield of 169.5 bushels an acre, a 3.5 bushel an acre bump from earlier forecasts.

It was a question and challenge from a farmer in August during an event in Minnesota about those acreage and crop production numbers that caused Perdue to take some criticism. The secretary defended NASS data then, but joked that that two farmers in a basement is called a "whine cellar." The joke caused a few groans in the audience, but led to more criticism after the comment was picked up by national media.

USDA has since dialed down the projections some. Planted corn acres for 2019-20 in the January report were 89.7 million acres with harvested acres lowered slightly to 81.5 million. But USDA, which had earlier lowered yield to 167 bpa, bumped it back up to 168 bpa in January.

At Farm Bureau on Monday, the secretary said he questioned staff and NASS staff were at the AFBF meeting to answer questions about the methodology on how USDA collects that information. But Perdue expressed confidence about the acreage and production data that came out over the summer.

"I think we'll find out their numbers that sort of surprised the market back in June -- that they may have been more correct than the market was ultimately," Perdue said.

The secretary said USDA will continue to improve on its acreage surveys and Crop Production reports. He said USDA will use better surveys, local satellite information, and more real-time data "to help determine even more accuracy," along with enumerators that go along with surveys. He asked for ideas to improve the methodology.

"If you have got an idea how we can use electronics and maybe an app for better surveys, we would like to hear those," Perdue said. "We are open to those kind of ideas of using modern technology to get you the best data you can to make plans for your farms."

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