U.S. agriculture has seen tremendous changes and challenges in recent years. Unprecedented new demands for agricultural products have caused significant changes in crop production and have provoked huge impacts on livestock production. Input market shocks, dynamic global markets and drought have all contributed to volatile short term market conditions. The changes and impacts are not merely short term in nature. There are long term structural implications to these changes that will impact what will be produced and where and how it will be produced. These changes have implications, not only for agricultural producers but also for consumers. Food price impacts of changes the last six years are just beginning to be manifest in the consumer marketplace. All of these factors imply that much information will be needed to understand the changes and implications of those changes on the U.S. food and fiber system.
Agricultural producers across the country are in the process of completing the 2012 Census of Agriculture survey. For many producers, this periodic survey is the only time they are asked directly to provide data about their operations. Given the expected changes in agriculture that are in progress since the 2007 survey, this Census of Agriculture is particularly important to begin documenting the long term structural change underway in U.S. agriculture. It is vitally important for producers to provide complete and accurate information to support research, analysis and decision-making that will affect all producers and consumers in U.S. food markets.
The Census of Agriculture is just one small piece of the U.S. agricultural data system that provides vital information for a vast array of data users and decision-makers on a daily basis. From the daily reporting of agricultural market prices to daily, weekly, monthly and annual data on production, trade and consumption, millions of users rely, either directly or indirectly, on data provided by a variety of government agencies. It is easy to take the data for granted. Many producers do not access the data directly and may not fully appreciate the degree to which the information and analysis that they do use depends on government data. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) are the two agencies for whom data is the primary agency mission but data is provided by a variety of other agencies as well.
The U.S. agricultural data system is under threat. Amid the budget realities and discussions of priorities in government, data is often overlooked and much of the current data system is under consideration for reduction or elimination. Failure to recognize the longer run benefits of a strong data system against the short run budget savings of cutting data programs has enormous implications, not only for producers but for society at large. The public good nature of agricultural market information has been well documented for many years. Providing better information with which producers can make better decisions makes markets more efficient, reduces food costs and benefits all consumers. The cost of even a short term disruption in major data series is extremely high.
U.S. agriculture is changing with many new challenges and opportunities. At stake is the integrity of the U.S. food and fiber system. The value of agricultural information is arguably higher now and in the coming years than it has been in the past couple of decades. The U.S. has made a large investment in a world class agricultural data system. This has paid tremendous dividends in the past and the consequences of not maintaining it in the future are even greater.