USDA on Tuesday celebrated 50 years of the department producing monthly agricultural supply and demand estimates.
On Sept. 17, 1973, USDA released the first "Agricultural Supply & Demand Estimates" report, a new product to "give the public the timeliest analytical information available officially from the Department."
Somewhere along the way USDA tacked on "World" to create the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates" -- or the WASDE -- love it or hate it.
They had cupcakes at USDA and everything. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered some comments about 50 years behind the report and had USDA Chief Economist Seth Meyer blow out the candles.
The cupcakes likely caused a slight increase in wheat and sugar disappearance that was offset by lowering exports and dropping ending stocks to account for the rise in domestic use.
"This work behind the scenes gets attention in this moment, but then gets analyzed and utilized for weeks on end and helps to establish the market prices that mean the difference between making and not making it for many producers," Vilsack said.
The secretary also cited the importance the WASDE means for trade and "and the competition that we may potentially face."
The first report in 1973 under then-Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz only listed data on wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and upland cotton. Butz probably encouraged USDA economists to count the crops "from fencerow to fencerow."
Farmers have likely complained about the impact of the WASDE on crop prices ever since the first one came out.
Until 2017, reporters for various news outlets, including DTN, would go to USDA and participate in the "lock up" in which USDA officials would essentially lock us up in a room for two hours without internet service until the report was released. We would get hard copies of the report and DTN would have at least two staff in the WASDE lockup -- but more likely three of us would be there. I started going to the lockups around 2010.
That two-hour window gave us time to read the report, write up the key number changes and check our work before the official report release at noon Eastern. Every now and then a reporter would catch an error in the copy that USDA officials would scramble to fix. Getting into the lockup was a security headache at times, but being in there gave valuable time for reporters to ensure the decimal points were in right place, the billions of bushels were indeed billions and the millions of bushels were also millions. When the clock struck noon, we each rushed to transmit our articles.
Former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and then-USDA Chief Economist unceremoniously ended the reporter lockups in 2017, alleging journalists and their subscribers had an unfair advantage over everyone else in seeing the WASDE reports ahead of time. At the same time, USDA lamented how bad rural broadband was for some farmers yet they expect everyone can open the WASDE report on the USDA website precisely at noon. There also have been times since USDA kicked out the reporters that the WASDE files did not open at noon as expected.
The current administration never bothered to return reporters to the WASDE.
Vilsack noted when the report comes out, "I always get an email from Seth that explains it to me in a way that I understand, which can't be easy for him. These are incredibly important numbers and it's important for a secretary and deputy secretary to understand and appreciate in the real world."
That's actually what we do in trying to report on and analyze the WASDE for our readers.
It takes a fairly sizable team at DTN to ensure each WASDE goes smoothly. Since being kicked out of the lockup, every month at DTN we have a prep call in which Senior Analyst Todd Hultman talks about the pre-report forecasts and highlights numbers to watch from Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, etc. As the WASDE comes out, there is a team of us posting spreadsheets immediately, writing up the report numbers -- making sure the billions and millions are correct -- then checking the numbers in U.S. bushels and global metric tons -- and updating posts with sections on corn, soybeans and wheat with Todd Hultman and other analysts offering their understanding of what the new numbers mean for crop farmers and livestock producers.
Then we have a whole other group of people who are making sure the data flowed properly from USDA's spreadsheets to DTN's various products and formats. There are audio reports, video reports and a monthly webinar shortly after each WASDE as well.
A lot of that happens in basically a 30-minute window.
The last thing I want to hear about a published WASDE report is that I typed a "b" when it should have been an "m" and we didn't catch it.
In 1973, there also wasn't the opportunity for instant engagement with producers as well. Each month, USDA jumps on X -- formerly known as Twitter -- to take questions about the crop production reports with #StatChat. On Tuesday, Reuters columnist Karen Braun asked about the 800,000-acre increase in planted and harvested acres -- a 774,000-acre increase in harvest, to be technically correct. Braun noted that's a "historically huge rise in the fall review."
A farmer on X also wasn't buying the newly found acres. "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth after reporting an increase in harvested acres during a drought year?"
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @ChrisClaytonDTN
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