Farm Horizons, August 2013

Survey says: farmers provide valuable market data

By Kristen Miller

For 2002 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate Tony Dahlman, getting a job with the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service couldn’t have been more perfect for him.

As a math major and junior at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus, Dahlman, who grew up on a seed corn and soybean farm north of Cokato, attended a college fair, where he was informed of an internship with the agency.

Describing the applicable person as being a statistics major with a background in agriculture, Dahlman said, “I about fell over.”

In 2005, Dahlman began his internship in the St. Paul office, and following graduation in 2006, he was offered a full-time position in the South Dakota office.

Dahlman described the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) as the official statistical agency for the USDA, conducting hundreds of surveys that affect farmers and the agricultural market.

It provides all the official estimates for crops, livestock, economics, and demographics dealing with agriculture, Dahlman said.

For example, it was the NASS office that determined there are 97 million acres of corn in the US, he added.

NASS has 12 regional offices in the US, with its headquarters in Washington, DC, where Dahlman has been working since 2010.

“I’ve always been interested in politics,” Dahlman said, and now he is in the middle of it all with his office located on the National Mall, from which he can see the Washington Monument.

“It’s definitely different scenery than Cokato,” Dahlman said.

In Washington, Dahlman is a survey administrator and oversees the data collection process.

NASS conducts surveys from all the ranchers and farmers in the US, Dahlman said, adding that he’s sure every farmer in the area has received a survey from NASS at some point.

The two largest surveys done by NASS are the agricultural labor survey, in which a random sample of farmers are asked to provide the number of workers hired, number of hours worked, and the wage rates; and a survey on the prices received for crops. For this, NASS mainly interviews elevators on how much farmers are paid for crops. The labor survey is conducted twice a year, and the prices for crops survey is conducted monthly.

The purpose of these surveys is to provide economic indicators and determine immigration requirements, Dahlman explained.

Currently, the office is working on finalizing a questionnaire for the October labor survey.

The agency will also be conducting a yield survey in August to provide the first soybean and corn yield forecast. This will help determine just how the late planting has affected crops not only in Minnesota, but across the US, Dahlman noted. “Everything is definitely late,” he commented.

Questions for the yield survey include how many acres of corn were planted, how many acres are intended to be harvested, and the expected yield. The data is set to be released to the public Aug. 12, and can be found online at www.nass.usda.gov.

Working for the USDA and NASS has been a great opportunity for Dahlman explaining that he likes the fact that he is able to combine his two interests of math and agriculture.

“Having a background in agriculture really helps in this job,” Dahlman commented. “I can understand what farmers are thinking about when they fill out the surveys and when we’re setting the estimates.”

NASS has just completed the data collection for the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Every farmer in the US is asked to fill out the survey every five years. This particular survey was sent out in December, and will give the USDA county-level data for all crops, all areas of livestock, and economic indicators, as well, Dahlman explained. The results of the 2012 census will be released in February 2014, according to Dahlman.

Farmers can be assured that their time spent taking the surveys is worthwhile. “Having an official source of information helps stabilize the markets,” Dahlman said, explaining that the data is utilized by farmers, economists, and by other sectors. “Without a source of information, it creates more uncertainty,” he noted, which benefits everyone in the agricultural economy.

The data is also calculated and kept secure until it’s official release date.

Dahlman explained the lock-up area where the market-sensitive reports are kept.

The statisticians finalize the data with the doors completely locked, and no phone or Internet connection, due to the fact that the numbers can have a lot of effect on the market.

The lock-up area was created following the 1905 cotton report in which a USDA employee was feeding data to an outsider by raising the window shade up or down if the results was above or below a certain number.

What is believed to be the first agricultural survey was done in 1790, by George Washington, who was an active farmer in Virginia, Dahlman explained. Washington sent letters to friends and fellow farmers to determine what crops were being planted and other economic information.

Dahlman’s wife, Karla, also works for NASS. The couple met while they both were working in the South Dakota office. Dahlman is the son of Kevin and Nancy Dahlman of Cokato.

More information about NASS can be found online at www.nass.usda.gov.

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