January 19, 2017 / 10:08 PM / 9 months ago

Farmers' reticence poses threat to USDA data objectivity -USDA study

CHICAGO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Record-low responses from farmers to surveys threaten the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s status as the gold standard in crop data collection and potentially open up trading advantages to big firms, the agency’s chief economist said on Thursday.

Response rates have been on a precipitous decline in recent years, falling below 60 percent in some cases, from rates of 80-85 percent in the early 1990s, chief economist Robert Johansson said in a study published by the University of Illinois (bit.ly/2jRehym).

The study, co-authored by Johansson, said reduced response rates could introduce bias or error to the USDA’s estimates - for example, if farms producing higher yields dropped out.

Encouraging more farmers to respond would ensure the USDA continued to provide objective information to all participants in agriculture markets, the study said.

“In a market without this free information, large firms might well be able to invest in market intelligence that small firms and farms would not have available,” it added.

Informa Economics and Lanworth Inc, a unit of Thomson Reuters, are among companies that sell crop forecasting data.

The USDA surveys tens of thousands of farmers for detailed planting and harvesting data for dozens of crops. The data is viewed as the “gold standard” by the agency because of its scope and methodology, the study said.

Data at the county level is used to help calculate compensation payments to farmers under the 2014 Farm Bill.

Survey response rates have fallen in part because it has become harder to reach households with the rise of telephone technologies like caller identification and replacement of land lines with cell phones.

Johansson wrote the study with USDA social science analyst Anne Effland and Mississippi State University agricultural economist Keith Coble.

Ways to combat loss of farmer data could include using information from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which manages federal crop insurance policies, as well as remote sensing and weather data.

Costs for the surveys increase when farmers have to be contacted by phone or in person, sometimes with several attempts, instead of via the internet.

The USDA is one of the top 10 spenders of federal funds, with a budget of $156 billion in 2016.

Johansson, nominated as chief economist in 2015 by then-USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, plans to remain in his post, a spokeswoman said on Thursday. President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Sonny Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, to lead the USDA. (Reporting by Michael Hirtzer; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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