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After the Shutdown, a Deluge of Major USDA Reports

With the shutdown behind it, the USDA will begin today to clear out a month’s worth of backlogged data, including major reports that could jolt commodity markets and color farmers’ decisions on crops to plant this spring. Chief Economist Robert Johansson said there will be one exception — the globe-spanning WASDE Report that serves as a monthly crop report for the world.

“We will quickly and smoothly get back to full speed,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on social media. Most of USDA’s workforce of around 95,000 were furloughed during the five-week partial federal government shutdown. On Friday, President Trump announced a three-week truce for negotiations over border security, creating the possibility of another lapse in funding on February 15.

A USDA spokesman was not immediately available to say if SNAP benefits for March might be affected. The USDA used a budgeting loophole to pay February benefits in advance.

With funding restored, USDA offices serving farm and rural development programs will be back in full operation. Last week, USDA opened half of its Farm Service Agency offices to provide limited services that did not include new loans to farmers or paperwork for farm supports and Trump tariff payments. An estimated 2,500 retailers were unable to make SNAP transactions during the shutdown because they could not renew their licenses. As well, the USDA was blocked from implementing the 2018 farm policy law, which modestly strengthened the farm safety net.

“Farmers have crops to plant, animals to raise, and food to sell. We need the Agriculture Department and the rest of the federal government up and running to do the job the American people need us to do,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Some 62 reports that gauge U.S. farm production, foreign purchases of U.S commodities, the size of domestic stockpiles, and U.S. plantings of winter wheat were delayed by the shutdown, said AFBF economist Veronica Nigh. Without USDA’s unbiased assessments, producers are at a disadvantage in judging which crops offer the best returns, she said.

Chief Economist Johansson said the backlogged reports “will be published as quickly as we are able.” Material originally intended for the January WASDE will be combined into the February 8 edition. “So no January WASDE,” wrote Johansson in an email, using the abbreviation for World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, a 40-page statistical tour of global grain, oilseed, and cotton output, trade, usage, and stockpiles broken down by major countries. Some of the delayed reports need minimal finishing touches before release; others require more assembly and will take longer.

Crowding on the heels of the delayed reports will be USDA projections of the farm sector for the year ahead. The farm income forecast for 2019 is due on February 7. On February 14, the detailed 10-year agricultural baseline is due.

Nigh anticipated the loss of the January WASDE Report in a blog last week, saying conditions changed worldwide while USDA was mothballed. “It wouldn’t make sense to create and then publish the report after the fact,” she said, although USDA’s assessment of production overseas is “better known and far preferred” to the estimates generated in some competitor nations.

It would be the second time in five years that a WASDE Report was canceled. The other was October 2013, when a 16-day shutdown also forced cancellation of the monthly Crop Production Report for the first time in 147 years. In 2001, the crop report and WASDE were postponed for two days because of the September 11 terror attacks. The reports occasionally have been postponed due to severe winter storms.

When the 2013 shutdown ended, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack greeted employees at the doorway to the massive USDA complex on the National Mall. “Good to have you back,” he said repeatedly as they entered.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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