Todd Steinacher sat down with Mark Schleusener, an Illinois state statistician with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), to learn more about the history and procedures used to determine weekly crop progress, acreage, yield, and production numbers.
Question: What is the history of the USDA and the crop report?
Answer: Abraham Lincoln established the USDA in 1862 and the first crop report was published on July 10, 1863. In 1866, the USDA began a series of regular monthly reports on crop production. For corn in Illinois, the data series for state level production goes all the way back to 1866 and is available to view online for free. https://www.nass.usda.gov/About_NASS/Timeline/The_Founding_Period/index.php
Q: Do other countries have similar programs?
A: Yes, most other countries have some type of statistical series for crop and livestock production. NASS has helped numerous third world countries establish and improve their agricultural statistics series.
Q: How are the locations or fields selected in Illinois for the monthly report?
A: It has changed over the years, but for 2020 there are 200 corn fields and 200 soybean fields selected in Illinois. We randomly select fields from farmers that reported to us on an earlier survey. This ensures that the target farm has the crop of interest. While we count and measure in those randomly selected fields, we are also asking several hundred farmers about their total farm yield expectations. That part of the project is done by mail and phone.
Q: How often is there someone in a field to report and record data, and what are they looking for?
A: The fields are visited monthly starting September 1 until harvest. They count cornstalks and ears and measure the kernel row length and diameter of the ears. For soybeans, they count plants, blooms, and pods. When the samples are close to mature, some of the fruit (pods, ear, wheat heads) are sent to a lab in St. Louis for weighing and moisture content. NASS uses data from farmers to forecast yields monthly (August – November for corn and soybeans). Field counts and measurements are very helpful September through November. In December, we conduct a large survey of several thousand farms in Illinois. We ask them for their final acreage, yield, and production statistics. This data set will inform our annual production report in January.
Q: When a crop condition score is developed, what is considered Good, Bad, Excellent? Aren’t those opinions?
A: Yes, those are all opinions and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” NASS provides guidelines to everyone in the sample at the beginning of each season to assist with the scores. It is helpful information but is not a substitute for counting and measuring plants and asking farmers about their yield expectations. NASS uses those questions in our weekly crop progress and condition report. The respondents for that project are primarily Farm Service Agency County Executive Directors. Some are farmers, some are other USDA employees, and some are NASDA field staff.
Q: Over time how accurate are the projections vs. the actual?
A: We get better as we get closer to harvest. U.S.-level data for the reliability of September 1 reports can be found on page 41 at the following link: https://release.nass.usda.gov/reports/crop0920.pdf.
90% of the time, the September corn production forecast is within 5.4% of the final.
Q: Are there other people involved to help make the forecasting decisions?
A: NASS is an organization that conducts surveys and censuses to measure domestic agricultural production, inventory, and prices. Our staff have working relationships with universities around the country and we will consult with them on very specific issues, but they are not part of the forecasting process. At NASS, we use a team approach, with mathematicians and statisticians, to make our forecasts. Nearly all of them have agricultural knowledge and experience, but their formal training is more numerical. Many of our staff have degrees in ag economics or ag marketing, which are a good combination of numerical skills and agricultural knowledge
Mark Schleusener started working for USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) in 1984 in Washington, D.C. He has been serving as the Illinois state statistician since November 2013. Mark enjoys golf, gardening, and going to Broadway shows with his wife, Jeanette.