Debating the WASDE Data

USDA Board Chairman Pushes Back on Notion USDA Analysis is Staid, Short on Data

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Critics of the USDA WASDE report, such as Gro Intelligence, say USDA should rely more on satellite data, but USDA says field sampling and farmer surveys are still useful tools. (DTN file images)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The chairman of USDA's World Agricultural Outlook Board -- the group that produces the monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) -- fired back this week at a report by an agricultural software and satellite firm challenging USDA's data collection methodology that produces the monthly WASDE.

Gro Intelligence, which describes itself as having "developed the world's most extensive agriculture data platform," issued a report Wednesday calling USDA's WASDE "outdated," and referring to it as an "analogue tool for a digital age." The report stated, "The quality of in-season U.S. crop yield forecasting is deteriorating due to farmland consolidation and smaller sampling sizes."

At issue, Gro Intelligence argues, is "the failure of USDA to embrace new technologies (such as satellite), especially in an era where data can be accessed on an hourly, daily and weekly basis."

Despite the volumes of satellite data in the countryside, Gro Intelligence questions why "despite these massive advancements we continue to wait for monthly information," a Gro Intelligence spokeswoman said in an email to DTN.

And Gro Intelligence also questions why USDA still relies on farm surveys and manual field samples when so much data is readily available.

Such arguments over the validity of USDA reports are a constant issue in the grain trade, especially as more private companies have started up using satellite images to make their own yield and production forecasts.

Yet, while satellites may offer new models, pre-report ranges still vary. Last September, for instance, as much of the 2017-18 corn crop was "made," the pre-report private estimates still had a 373-million-bushel range in the 2017-18 production estimates by private crop analysts and a 4.5-bushel-per-acre range in the yield estimates.

Seth Meyer, chairman of USDA's World Agricultural Outlook Board since 2015, challenged Gro Intelligence's assessment that USDA doesn't rely on satellite imagery when making its assessments. He added that satellites are a great tool, but they don't replace the value of farmer surveys and crop sampling.

"They clearly don't know how we do business," Meyer told DTN on Wednesday. "We just don't let the computer tell us what the estimate is. Satellite imagery is not a replacement for farmer surveys or on-the-ground sampling."

USDA already uses a "tremendous amount" of satellite imagery to look at both domestic and overseas growing areas, Meyer said. That also is often outlined in Meyer's "Secretary Briefings," which are posted on the USDA's Office of Chief Economist website.

The World Agricultural Outlook Board also has five meteorologists on staff who are specialists in crop growing seasons and conditions, Meyer noted. Those meteorologists have a history of studying not just the images but growing degree days, planting dates and other details that go into the reports.

"We have our own knowledge of years of experience doing this," Meyer said.

All of that information is compiled and put into the secretary's report. "You have got folks who want to say satellite imagery is the end-all, be-all of crop estimates. It is not," Meyer said. "You need to have a complete package of data to know what is going on." He added, "I am not willing to give up my NASS colleagues' work for satellite imagery."

Meyer also pushed back on the notion that USDA's work compiling a WASDE is "staid and not innovative."

"Until people come and see how we do it, there is a falsehood that we all sit around with graph paper and that's how we do this," Meyer said. "That could not be further from the truth."

Still, Gro Intelligence, as it touts its own forecasting products, argues for reform in USDA's work. The delay in monthly analysis by USDA adds volatility to the marketplace, the company said.

"WASDE is a system that has not been reformed for 40 years -- in a world where data is delivered in nanoseconds the agricultural commodities sector is still reliant on data delivered monthly at best, triggering volatility throughout the global agricultural system," said Sara Menker, Gro Intelligence's CEO.

USDA Secretary Briefing materials: https://www.usda.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be released at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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(ES/AG)

Chris Clayton