USDA wants to cull the statistician herd

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While they don’t always appear to be related, statistics and modern agriculture go hand-in-hand. Industrial farmers rely on a myriad of statistical information from acreage usage numbers to data regarding conservation efforts in order to stay profitable and meet environmental mandates. That said, its natural that producers are nervous about a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal that would dramatically downsize the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The proposed plan would consolidate localized field offices and cut staff significantly in most states.

NASS officials say the proposal would reduce the overall number of field offices from 46 to nine regional offices. These would serve all 50 states and the common wealth of Puerto Rico. The worry for farmers is that reliable statistics can’t be produced with such a small, centralized staff. The NASS asserts that the proposal would not affect the quality of its surveys.

Dave Knopf, director of the Washington NASS office in Olympia, informed Capital Press about the proposal’s impact on operations in Western and Pacific states: the office functions of Washington, Oregon and California would be combined and headquartered in Sacramento. As for Idaho, their office would move to Denver. The only guarantee about staffing Knopf could provide is that a state director would remain in each state.

A bevy of growers associations are pressuring the NASS for more information on the scope of possible cutbacks. According to the Capital Press, North West grain growers use NASS data extensively for wheat and barley variety surveys, which serve vital marketing purposes.

“If the number of surveys and the timeliness of the information changes, there obviously would be an impact,” said Glen Squires, vice president of the Washington Grain Commission.

Knopf is adamant that there won’t be a noticeable effect on the industry under the proposal. The NASS will offer the same programs, just in a different and manner (“from a remote location”), he says.

Increased efficiency of operations and improved inter-agency coordination has been a mission of the NASS over the last year. In November, the USDA announced the deployment of the final stage of an initiative to centralize data across the NASS’ 46 field offices, signaling a move to downsize the agency. With the help of IT solutions provider Accelera Solutions, all 1200 NASS employees and contractors were migrated to a standardized virtual desktop environment. Elvera Gleaton, enterprise technology architect for the USDA NASS’ IT Division said in a Nov. 16 press release:

As the leading source of facts and figures about American agriculture, USDA NASS considers having an efficient and standardized IT infrastructure a mission-critical operational asset. The advantages of having standardized virtualization infrastructure go beyond remote access – it simplifies our system management process and saves us time and resources.

Despite improved efficiency and continued assurances about a seamless transition under the proposal, the NASS does seem willing to curtail some services at its own discretion. Earlier this year, livestock producers were shocked to learn that the NASS would be discontinuing its annual Sheep Inventory Report. Droughts in Texas in 2011 have forced ranchers to shift hundreds of thousands of breeding sheep from the nation’s largest sheep producing state to pastures as far west as California, east to Tennessee and north to Wisconsin and Idaho. The anticipated January 2012 report would, according to Ag Weekly, “help analysts document this large shift in sheep numbers and allow companies to make decisions on product marketing and lamb and wool procurement.”

Coordinated action from industry advocates and members the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee reversed the decision to ditch the report last week. Even though the issue has been resolved, it has left some agribusinesses with a nagging suspicion that data services vital to their industry aren’t secure.

The NASS has not announced when a final decision will be made on the proposal and a spokesman declined to comment further.