Federal shutdown trammels research, markets

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A little more than a week into the federal government shutdown, researchers, economists and journalists are finding frustration and uncertainty in closure of federal labs, offices and the online data spigot that was www.usda.gov.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has maintained everything from acres grown and harvested to yields and other information critical to the commodity markets. When the government shut down last Tuesday, so did the USDA site. Other sites, such as the U.S. Geological Survey still had active pages, saying “Only web sites necessary to protect lives and property will be maintained.”
  
“We appreciate the wealth of data USDA meticulously and consistently puts together,” said Scott Stiles, extension economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “They are missed.”

The commodity markets have to come to rely on the Thursday morning ‘Export Sales’ reports, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission ‘Commitment of Traders’ report each Friday afternoon, and the ‘Crop Progress’ each Monday afternoon, he said, adding that there are many other reports from the various agencies within the USDA that are closely followed.

“Based on information released Monday, we won't see the monthly National Agricultural Statistics Service ‘Crop Production’ and ‘World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates’ that were scheduled for release this Friday,” Stiles said.

“In my opinion, without the USDA Supply/Demand and ‘Crop Production’ reports this week trading volume is declining in some commodities over the past week,” he said. “In other words, without these key fundamental data, many traders -- the speculative traders in particular -- may pull out of the grain markets.”

Seeking other sources
Without the USDA’s online data source, journalists are looking elsewhere.

“We were looking forward to reporting on USDA’s Oct. 11 reports on supply and demand,” said Elton Robinson, editor at Delta Farm Press. “It was an important one going into the fall.”

Absent that report, Robinson said the direction of the planned story had changed to become one “on where to go for marketing information now that the report could be delayed, or even cancelled,” he said. “This means many of the independent brokerage firms that also analyze and provide guesstimates on the numbers will become more important. But they don’t have the overall experience and reach to be as accurate and consistent as USDA.”

The data-turned-news outage affects producers too.

“Cattle producers rely on the weekly Livestock and Grain Market News put out by USDA,” said Tom Troxel, associate head-animal science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “The reporters for this news are state employees and are not subject to furlough under the government shutdown.

“But because of the shutdown, the information they collect is not disseminated in the usual online channels,” he said. “So news outlets and ranchers themselves are having to call these reporters and ask them to summarize the information they’ve gathered.”

Delayed by lack of data
Missing data was also an issue for Dharmendra Saraswat, associate professor/geospatial engineer for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Saraswat’s work relies on more than just USDA data; he looks to information from the U.S. Geological Survey as well.

“A variety of data required for watershed modeling such as soils, elevation, county and watershed boundary, streams data, etc., are not available due to federal shutdown,” he said. “It does delay some of the work.”

Saraswat added that the lack of data does not affect any apps issued by the Division of Agriculture. 

Research slowed
Yeshi Wamishe, extension pathologist at the Rice Research and Extension Center, said that collaborative research with federal colleagues on means to control blast diseases in rice and wheat has “already slowed down because of the government shutdown.

”This is a multi-state $5.5 million project for five years, and we have got only one year of funding. The certainty for funding in the second year is unclear,” she said.

Wamishe said she and colleagues had submitted another multi-state proposal to work on bacterial panicle blight in rice that had been accepted for review. “We were waiting for a funding approval decision in October, and now we are uncertain about the future of our proposal.”

She noted that the shutdown has not impeded her other work.

Needed controls on hold
Bob Scott, extension weed scientist, said fall is usually the time the Environmental Protection Agency gives the go ahead on new herbicides, or new uses for existing herbicides. In particular, growers in Arkansas’ young edamame industry were awaiting an OK for use of two weed control products.   


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