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During Shutdown, Farmers And Others Lack Critical USDA Reports


All right. Farmers have been hit by the government shutdown in a different way. They are struggling to get information. The U.S. Department of Agriculture usually publishes the price, sales numbers and inventory for many agricultural products, but now some of those reports are not happening. Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer explains why this matters.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Here's an example of why reports matter. The government launched some of its crop and livestock reports as a response to the Soviet Union's huge purchase of U.S. grain in the 1970s. Commodities economist Arlan Suderman says the quiet purchase, worth about a billion dollars at the time, came as a shock.

ARLAN SUDERMAN: Then when it became known, we suddenly realized that much of our known inventory was gone, and the markets reacted very violently.

MAYER: Commodity prices soared. With that in the back of his mind, Suderman says he's now thinking about whether China could pull off a similar trick during this lag in public reporting. While not likely, it is possible. Suderman's company relies mainly on proprietary research, but he says they use USDA figures to fact-check their own. He's concerned there could be some surprises when the government reports resume.

SUDERMAN: Particularly, if once the reports start, we find that there is information that we missed that the market needs to adjust for. And that's the greatest risk.

MAYER: More immediately, farmers don't have all the information they count on. In Dallas County, Iowa, Marvin Shirley has been farming since the 1960s and uses USDA reports to guide his decision-making.

MARVIN SHIRLEY: We sell our calves sometime in January, February. Those would give projections and ideas on the amount of cattle around.

MAYER: Without them, he may put off that sale. At this time of year, his family's also thinking about the amount of corn and soybeans they'll plant in the coming season. But they don't have the information they need to make any adjustments. Shirley says the shutdown and last year's tariffs on many U.S. products create new problems for struggling farmers.

SHIRLEY: The president is very good at creating a problem then either using taxpayer money or some other means to solve the problem he created. And it's just a very unsettling time.

MAYER: To be sure, some Trump supporters in farm country don't feel unduly burdened by the shutdown. One cattle feedlot owner in Iowa said he could get by without the reports for some time and was embracing the politics of the moment, saying he's, quote, "tickled to death with what's happening." Iowa State University livestock economist Lee Schulz says the missing data means he can't put out his January reports, and he's already hearing chatter from worried farmers.

LEE SCHULZ: The longer this goes, some of that added uncertainty in the market, you know, may cause producers to not make decisions they normally would have.

MAYER: Daily price reports are still being published, but January is a big month for other data - a world supply and demand estimate, last year's totals for U.S. crop production and the number of cattle in the country. A USDA spokeswoman says the agency's intent is to publish them all once the government reopens. But by then staff and farmers will be playing a game of catch-up. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Des Moines.


GREENE: Amy's story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting project in the Midwest and Plains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.