Rosie on the House: Why We Gather Agriculture Numbers
Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), known as the People’s Department, during the Civil War. He viewed agriculture as a critical part of his domestic policy. He understood the importance of agriculture to our prosperity as a nation. At the time, about half of all Americans lived on a farm. Today, less than 2% of the population lives on farms and ranches.
In all of this, most don’t know George Washington first surveyed producers in August 1791. He sent eight questions to five states requesting information on land prices, values and yields. And he apologized to the farmers for the time required to fill out the survey. So many consider President Washington the nation’s first agricultural statistician.
How has agriculture changed? In the 18th century, American producers near waterways could trade, but inland producers were subsistence producers due to the lack of transportation to get their product to the larger markets, all the while wooden plows were pulled by oxen. By 1840, just over half of the U.S. population (17 million) were farmers and plows were now made out of steel. By 1920, less than one-third of the population were farmers and much of farming was mechanized. Currently, it’s less than 2%. Today, automation, precision ag, drones, and robots are part of the farm and ranch landscape.
The USDA evolved similarly by creating programs that promoted agriculture, regulated the industry, or assisted agriculture beginning with the Meat Inspection Acts around 1890. The first Farm Bill was passed in 1933. Throughout the USDA evolution, it remained the “people’s department.” In 1840, the first Census of Agriculture was conducted in 26 states since at the time there were only 26 states in the United States.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), a small division within the USDA, also changed. Data collection initially was virtually all conducted by mail with telephone follow-up. Today NASS tries to complete tasks electronically, which allows producers to respond to our data collection efforts on their own time. Electronic reporting is significantly more efficient AND less costly to taxpayers.
Technology changes also occurred, obviously. In 1984 as an intern, I used a rotary dial phone. Card readers were used to read in the data to be summarized. SuperCalc was the spreadsheet option, long before Lotus 123 and now, Excel.
In 1987 when I first started in Idaho full-time, the Crop Weather charts were all created using colored pencils and a ruler. Today, we have electronic reporting and significantly more automation. Before 2013, there were 45 State offices each acting rather autonomously. Each was fully staffed. The Arizona Field Office personnel numbered 10. Regionalization in 2013 created 12 regional offices. The Arizona field office shrunk from 10 people down to two. Improvements included more standardization on how tasks were completed and more streamlined processes. Presence in a state office was maintained.
NASS measures virtually all supply aspects of the agriculture industry. NASS levels the playing field for everyone, especially the producers: acreage, yield, production, and value, supply of food and fiber. This boils down to important information for markets to work most efficiently.
Specifically, NASS collects and summarizes data for other USDA agencies to use for their research, like the Ag Resource Management Survey Phase 3 (ARMS 3) which measures the financial well-being of producers. NASS is globally important, also. In fact, NASS is considered the gold standard on statistical estimating programs. Our International Programs Office helps other countries with their agriculture statistic methodologies.
Of note, NASS estimates are not only for national-level estimates. Each state’s data shows what commodities are important at the local level and answers questions about the value of agriculture each state contributes to the total U.S. ag industry.
The Value of the Numbers
Dairy and beef cattle make up 40% of the value of Arizona’s agriculture. The top 16 annual agriculture commodities are 80% to 85% of total Arizona ag value. Milk/Cattle both require feed such as alfalfa and grains. Without cattle feeding on alfalfa, we would not have Ice creams, yogurts, burgers and steaks as cattle require alfalfa and alfalfa requires water.
And when it comes to the Census of Agriculture (COA), it covers nearly every aspect of U.S. agriculture. It is still the only source of comprehensive and impartial data for every state and county in the nation. The data will inform decisions that will help shape the future of American agriculture for the next five or six years. COA data are used by those who serve producers and rural communities. The important data impacts everything from farm programs and funding, crop insurance rates, rural development, disaster assistance and more; the types of things that directly impact producers. Beginning Farmers and Veterans programs were shaped by the results of previous COAs.
The U of A Ag Economic Department uses COA data as a foundation to measure the ag industry’s total economic impact and the results of the 2022 COA should provide the data necessary for updating the $23.3 billion figure we highlight today. But that $23 billion ag industry number is not a USDA number.
Everyone has access to information via our website including members of Congress and would be surprised if they don’t use our data to make informed decisions. And not only COA data provide comprehensive data (only every 5 years), but also the annually produced ARMS 3 economic/financial data mentioned earlier. The USDA Economic Research Service analyzes the data and releases various reports for not only Congress but other researchers and analysts.
COA and ARMS 3 are the only data collection efforts that ask about expenses. We have the value of sales or cash receipts estimates but are rather in the dark when it comes to expenses and the financial situation of U.S. agriculture. The annual economic survey came about after the early 1980s financial problems in agriculture. Congress was unable to discern much about the problems since there was a lack of data about farm economics. USDA NASS was then mandated to conduct annual economic surveys (ARMS 3) to provide information on the financial well-being of America’s producers.
AZ Farm Bureau has been very helpful in sharing the Arizona crop and livestock estimates on their social media. I send Julie multiple infographics when interesting estimates about AZ agriculture are released, like the March 31 Prospective Plantings estimates. The Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, and the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts have also shared Arizona ag statistics with their followers, so a shout-out to all of you.
Editor's Note: For some more insider ball on USDA-NASS and the fascinating story of "lock-ups," click on the arrow for last week's Rosie on the House show.