Oct. 2, 2018


New Report Provides Guidance to USDA for Updating Its Data Programs to More Completely Understand American Agriculture

WASHINGTON - To ensure that U.S. agricultural policies are well-informed, data collection programs must be periodically revisited to reflect current realities of the agricultural sector, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Better measurements of the large, often complex farms responsible for the majority of contemporary agricultural production in the United States would yield important information relevant to agricultural policy issues, but such measurement requires that specific definitions be applied accurately and consistently. The report provides recommendations to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and Economic Research Service (ERS) identify new approaches for effectively collecting data and reporting information about American agriculture, given the increased complexity of farm businesses in recent decades.

The report places an emphasis on understanding farm structures at the conceptual level, with guidance on reflecting the diversity of agriculture, the need to reduce the burden for respondents, the urgency of addressing root causes of declining response rates, and the need to create operational efficiencies and better processes within the agencies. This report should prove timely, as USDA is aiming to have a revised system of data and statistical programs by 2022.

NASS and ERS publish statistics and reports that regularly and extensively detail the number of farms in the United States, the quantities and types of commodities they produce, the incomes of both farm businesses and the households that run these businesses, and the status and conditions of the agricultural economy broadly. Beyond the value of agricultural statistics in creating a complete economic profile of the country, their role in informing policies on the environment, climate change, biodiversity, food security and safety, population health, land-use planning, and natural-resource management is crucial. The safety and the quality of the nation’s food supply and the health and environmental impacts of production processes are among the most important policy areas that agricultural data and statistics help inform.

As large, complex farms have become commonplace, the traditional portrayal of farms as self-contained, family-operated businesses is no longer an accurate characterization. However, there is no set definition of a “complex farm.” Rather, multiple factors place farms along a spectrum of complexity, including the operational and management organization of a farm business, the number and diversity of commodities produced, and the amount of vertical integration in the business. To better track these complexities, the report recommends that NASS create a Farm Register that provides an ongoing enumeration of all farm businesses.  This register would include information such as size indicators, geolocation indicators, and North American Industry Classification System codes for the farm establishment, and would be regularly updated as new information becomes available.

The report also recommends that NASS and ERS continue to explore use of administrative and other non-survey data sources to increase the accuracy of their statistics and to reduce burden on farmers.  How effectively the federal statistical system can meet future data demands will largely depend on the extent to which data sources – survey and non-survey, national and local, and public and private – can be combined in synergistic ways. The report says that the current surveys conducted by NASS and ERS programs can no longer account for all the variables and levels of geographical detail necessary to meet agricultural research and policymaking demands, and it recommends that the USDA explore opportunities for record linkage through participation in the Federal Statistical Research Data Centers program. This program is a partnership between federal statistical agencies and leading research institutions that provides secure access to restricted-use microdata for statistical purposes. 

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://nationalacademies.org. 

Kacey Templin, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu
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Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Committee on National Statistics

Panel on Improving Data Collection and Reporting about Agriculture with Increasingly Complex Farm Business Structures

Catherine L. Kling* (chair)
Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and
Faculty Director
Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future
Cornell UniversityIthaca, N.Y.

J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr.
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology
Iowa State University

Norman M. Bradburn
Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
University of Chicago

Richard A. Dunn
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of Connecticut

Allen M. Featherstone
Professor and Head
Department of Agricultural Economics
Kansas State University

Joseph W. Glauber
Senior Research Fellow
International Food Policy Research Institute
Washington, D.C.

Brent Hueth
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and
Center for Cooperatives
University of Wisconsin

Ani L. Katchova
Farm Income Enhancement Chair and Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics
Ohio State University

Doris Mold
Sunrise Agricultural Associates LLC
St. Paul, Minn.

Jean Opsomer
Vice President
Rockville, Md.

Greg Peterson
Director General
Agriculture, Energy, Environment, and Transportation Statistics
Statistics Canada

Krijn J. Poppe
Senior Economist and Chief Policy Advisor
Wageningen University and Research
The Hague, Netherlands

Daniel A. Sumner
Frank H. Buck Jr. Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and
Agricultural Issues Center
University of California

James Wagner
Research Associate Professor
Survey Research Center, and
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Jeremy G. Weber
Associate Professor
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Economics
University of Pittsburgh


Christopher D. Mackie
Staff Officer

*Member, National Academy of Sciences