John's World: Why Does the Ag Census Turnaround Take So Long?

Last week the USDA published to great anticipation the 2017 Ag Census. Ag media were full of colorful charts, tables of numbers, and thoughtful analysis. This will continue as economists, demographers and even amateurs like me try to line up the data to discover trends or illuminate problems.

But I have a fundamental issue with the ag census, just like I do with crop reports, and many other USDA outputs. They take far too long.

In 1997, the census of ag was shifted from the Bureau of the Census in the Department of Commerce to the USDA and NASS. For that census data were gathered from December 1997 through February of 1998, and the results were published in February 1999. This is the same schedule as you can see for the latest census - despite gigantic leaps in both computing technology and statistical science. Meanwhile, farm policy will be based on a snapshot of US agriculture that was outdated at the moment of publishing.

I wrote about this inability to improve fifteen years ago in Top Producer when I wondered why crop reports have always taken ten days to crank out, no matter whether using pencils and adding machines or the latest computers. I was told by NASS that’s what the law says, which is sorta true. The legislation sets a final deadline, but there is nothing to prevent USDA from getting faster. Other than institutionalized laziness.

Which is my entire point. Data products similar to the ag census and crop reports are not only getting better all over our government – they are getting faster. The FED in Atlanta now puts out a weekly GDP estimate. The Bureau of Economic Analysis continually adds newer user features like mapping and speedier results. The USDA failure to improve has another cost.

While I do not rant about big, bloated government, because large complex societies and economies require significant governance, my support for USDA programs and employees is tested by what I think is indolent working to contract in the case of many USDA reports. There is no reason government cannot improve, and it is in many other agencies.

I am not criticizing the accuracy, integrity, or expertise of the USDA. But to be incapable of any productivity growth over decades is nonsense. I think the census of ag could be done annually and completed in a month after gathering. If NASS can’t do it, move it back the Census Bureau, or better yet, hire a data management company that can. If contractors can build our nuclear weapons, they can count farmers. And I’ll bet they can do it faster and cheaper.

So enjoy the flood of charts and graphs, and then ask why it takes so long.

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