ST. LOUIS — Joe Prusacki has a message for farmers who don’t like the federal government asking about their business: We’re all in this together.
The director of the St. Louis office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service is quick to point out that more information helps everybody.
“Yes, it’s an intrusion on your time. But information is good. Information makes things work better,” he said. “And by producers’ reporting, we can allocate resources and help out farmers based on information. I’m not in it for me; I’m in it for everybody.”
Prusacki recently invited members of the St. Louis AgriBusiness Club to the
St. Louis NASS office for a tour. It is one of 12 regional centers of the USDA agency that collects and disseminates statistics about almost everything that involves agriculture in the United States.
NASS collects information on acreage, yields and a host of other variables in regular reports as well as the periodic Census of Agriculture.
Prusacki, who grew up on a farm in Perry County, Ill., said he is still amazed at the lengths some go to in order to communicate their disapproval of the survey process.
“A farmer will take the time to send that questionnaire back, write on it, ‘This is really none of your business,’ put it into my business reply envelope and return it to me,” Prusacki said. “I pay the postage back, and they don’t tell me anything.”
Participation has fallen over the past couple of decades. Response rates to quarterly surveys were regularly above 80 percent in the 1990s, but have in some cases dropped to the 50s and 60s today.
Caller ID and mobile phones share part of the blame. So do the myriad calls from sales reps working for ag businesses. A general suspicion of Big Brother may have also added to the reduced participation rates.
“I get notes that say my call center is calling Saturdays at 5 o’clock,” Prusacki said. “I know that’s not true because we shut down at 2:30 on Saturdays. Then who is calling? Everybody. Grain companies, chemical companies, etc. It’s not just us; it’s everybody.
“What this has done is added more uncertainty to the process. With any estimate, there’s a margin of error.”
The agency has looked at other methods of gathering crop data, including the use of drones to measure plant progress reports during the growing season. But for some crops — namely, soybeans — aerial photography does not provide yield estimates with any level of consistency, according to Prusacki.
Fortunately, plenty of farmers across the nation still participate in surveys that provide valuable snapshots of agriculture. Among other things, the reports generated by NASS provide information used in determining export sales.
“Somebody somewhere said food security will be really important in this country,” Prusacki said. “History shows us that bad things happen if you can’t feed your people. How can we export grain to other parts of the world if we don’t know grain stocks we’ve got? What happens if information is removed from the process? Uncertainty, risk, volatility.”
Numbers regarding production, inventory and prices of 120 crops and 45 types of livestock are compiled by the agency.
All information collected from farmers is confidential and is considered sacrosanct at NASS. Since 1905, when it was revealed that a USDA employee was signaling information about cotton production to an outsider by adjusting the position of a shade on a window of the office, there has not been a breach of information prior to official reports, according to Prusacki.
The agency is also cognizant of skewing statistics by inflating a sample size. Prusacki was on the team that provided recommendations for developing 12 regional centers to largely replace state centers. He strongly advised against putting Illinois and Iowa in the same regional reporting district because of the states’ dominance in production of three major ag commodities.
“I said, ‘Whatever you do, you cannot have Illinois and Iowa in the same region.’ Why? Corn, soybeans and hogs. If you were in a region that had Iowa and Illinois, you would have about half the corn, half the soybeans, and a little more than half the hogs.”
Instead, the St. Louis region is made up of Illinois and Missouri. Iowa’s district also includes Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Prusacki stresses the agency’s emphasis on confidentiality. No farmer’s individual information is ever released.
“We don’t set policy. We don’t regulate activities. We don’t disclose individual information,” he said. “I could go to jail for doing that.”