It may be a pain, but NASS data is critical

By Andy Juris
President, Washington Association of Wheat Growers

wheat field

The older I get, the more I’m convinced most of us (me included) stop maturing somewhere between ages 12 to 15. Adults must shave more often, but that’s about the only major difference later in life. Thus, almost any social group we, as adults, participate in can be viewed through the lens of our high school experience. Perhaps the only exceptions to this rule are most mothers and a few select members of the clergy.

For example, in the theoretical high school of ag, we find many of the same characters also found in our younger years. Those kids with dreadlocks playing hacky sack on the front steps? The cover crops crowd. The future English majors worrying about world peace and polar ice? Those folks grow heirloom grains and make craft adult beverages. You could go on and on: the sports jocks who now drive ridiculously high pickups and talk loudly at auctions; the science geeks who are the CCAs; and, of course, Alex McGregor, the awesome school principal! 

And then there are the “cool” kids. You know the ones who hung out by the side door and coughed their way through some cigarettes smuggled from somebody’s dad. They had edgy hair, wore leather jackets and exuded the confidence of open rebellion … these are the farmers who don’t fill out their National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) surveys. While it may seem an easy club to join, it’s actually quite exclusive! It requires a brash dislike of government, a smug joy at ignoring the surveys and phone calls, and scoffing disdain for any simp who would bow to the “man” and fill it out. They exude coolness and confident opinions and often prove it in their devil-may-care demands for higher Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rental rates, better farm programs, and drought assistance. The Fonzie motorcycle gangsters of the ag world, ladies and gentlemen.

Got your attention? While the above may not necessarily be true in the extreme, I find many are more than willing to proudly discuss how they stick it to the “man” and ignore the surveys. So, what do these NASS folks do with this data? It turns out, a lot! Almost every aspect of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) programs utilize NASS data. CRP rental rates, farm program and disaster payments, ag lending, market crop reports, crop insurance, and transportation are but a few of the areas affected. Worldwide, NASS is considered the gold standard in ag statistics. 

There’s an old saying, “garbage in, garbage out.” When CRP rental rates aren’t what we like, there is a high likelihood no one filled out surveys in their county. USDA reports seem off? What is the quality of data they are getting from us? No ARC payment in your county? It’s likely not enough folks responded.

Now, are the NASS surveys perfect? NO! They are often long, boring, repetitive and, at times, seem intrusive. But I’ve never met a NASS official who wasn’t willing to discuss ways to streamline and simplify the process, and progress is being made. It’s hard to fix what you ignore. Are you concerned about the government having and using your data? If you’ve had a cell phone, used the internet, had a bank account, and are alive to read this column, then I hate to tell you, your stuff is out there. If we, as an industry, want to see the programs we use improved and operating on realistic data, it is only reasonable for us to do our part. So let’s quit the smoking, hang up the leather jacket, and join the math club. Usually they end up owning the car wash franchise the cool kids eventually work at anyway.