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Government Counting Sheep? Now, Only in Its Dreams

Andrew Holt | Getty Images

Last year, Wisconsin led the nation in mink farming, producing 833,430 pelts. Texas was the undisputed king of pansies, growing 1.8 million flats of the flowers. And no state harvested more hops than Washington, with 24,336 acres.

This year? Who knows? The government has stopped counting.

Forced to cut its budget, the Agriculture Department has decided to eliminate dozens of reports, including the annual goat census (current population: three million), and the number of catfish on the nation’s fish farms (177 million, not counting the small fry).

Which raises an existential question: If the government stops counting catfish, do catfish farmers no longer count?

“We’ll just disappear,” said Jerry Nobile, who raises catfish in Moorhead, Miss.

The decision, announced last month, to stop measuring various categories of agricultural products reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness of the 500 or so reports that the National Agriculture Statistics Service does every year. Corn, soybeans, cotton and other major commodities vital to the national economy will still be weighed, inventoried and otherwise tallied down to the last acre, bushel or bale. The same is true for cattle, pigs and poultry.

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. Potato farmers use reports on potato stocks to decide when to sell. Hops farmers use the data to persuade bankers to lend them money for costly processing facilities. Restaurant chains watch catfish numbers to anticipate price changes. With the Texas drought forcing farmers to send their sheep herds to other states, wool and lamb buyers would normally use federal data to see where the animals went.

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.

"We’ll just disappear." -catfish farmer,Moorhead, Miss., Jerry Nobile

“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.

The reports are mostly based on mailed surveys, but the data collection can also include telephone interviews and visits to farms.

For catfish farmers like Mr. Nobile, the government’s action is an uncomfortable reminder of their industry’s decline.

Hit hard by imports of cheaper fish from China, the catfish industry is on pace this year to process half as much fish as it did at its peak in 2003. Of course, we know that because the Agriculture Department had been tracking catfish processing every month. The agency now plans to cut not only that report but also a monthly report on catfish feed deliveries and a twice-yearly report that counts the fish in farmers’ ponds. (Cutting catfish and trout reports will save $480,000 a year, the department said.)

The reports themselves reveal a possible rationale for some of the cuts. There are just 389 catfish farms today in the three main producing states, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, down from 838 in 2004. There were 265 mink farms nationwide last year, down from 350 a decade earlier.

“Half of everybody’s out of business,” Mr. Nobile said. “We’re so small now they can kick us out and we have no power.”

The Agriculture Department said that some data on sectors covered by the discontinued reports would appear in the census of agriculture, which is prepared every five years.

Some farm groups said they would consider the possibility of paying to keep the reports coming.

Ann E. George, administrator of the Hop Growers of America, in Moxee, Wash., said the group had been paying $15,000 a year to help underwrite federal reports on hop stocks and production. The full cost is about $55,000 a year.

Farm group lobbyists also rely on the reports.

“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.

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.

William E. Kibler, the administrator of the statistics service at the time, said the experience showed how hard it was to eliminate a government program, no matter how small the constituency.

“The commodity organizations out there are pretty strong,” he said. “These congressmen up on the Hill say, ‘$50,000 is not much, let’s give it to them.’ ”

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