Flying Blind: Budget Cuts are Eroding Data & Information Resources

The newest example of a funding cut leading to the loss of data and information comes from the Department of Agriculture.

Government Counting Sheep? Now, Only in Its Dreams
William Neuman | New York Times
November 8, 2011

Budget cuts are leading to self-imposed cuts to agricultural surveys and reports.

The government began producing regular crop reports in 1863, the year after Lincoln created the Agriculture Department. One of the reports being eliminated, an annual sheep inventory (5.5 million head on Jan. 1), can trace its roots at least as far back as 1866. Also ending are reports on bees, honey production, flowers and nursery crops.

The statistics service said it was forced to reduce the frequency of some reports and eliminate others because its budget was cut for the fiscal year that ended in September and it expects further cuts for the current year. The eliminated reports will save $11 million a year.

“These are not cuts we wanted to make, but budget reductions by Congress made it necessary,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.

Do farmers – and others – appreciate the data and information?

But the Agriculture Department is saying, in effect, that the nation can get by just fine, thank you, without knowing how much hops brewers are holding in storage (46 million pounds in September) or the value of honey sold by North Dakota beekeepers ($70 million in 2010).

Farmers say such data is crucial — and not just because it helps them decide how much to plant or how many animals to raise.

There is also an issue of trust. Having the government collect the data and provide reports removes bias and political interference. Here’s an example of the issue from one of the smaller industries:

“The mink industry has its opponents,” said Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA. “In order to counter some of their misinformation, I have to inform the legislators that mink production in their state is an important component to the economic base.”

With the elimination of the mink report, which cost taxpayers $130,000 a year, the industry will have to compile its own numbers, raising credibility questions. “People may ask if I’m inflating or deflating the numbers for political purposes,” he said.

Cuts to the reports and surveys have happened in the past [Reagan-era] and were restored.

Many of the reports being cut today, including those on mink, catfish, trout, flowers and honey, were eliminated during an earlier round of budget tightening in 1982. A year later, most of the reports were restored by Congress because of appeals from farm groups.

Not sure that we can count on a restoration this time.

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