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Falling USDA Crop Survey Repsonse Rates Prove Problematic

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Response rates have declined since the 1990s but have fallen more sharply since around 2010.

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Did you know response rates for USDA-NASS acreage and production surveys has been steadily slipping since 2010? That could be problematic, according to several researchers, writing on the University of Illinois farmdoc daily.

Three ag economists – Robert Johansson and Anne Effland with USDA, and Keith Coble with Mississippi State University – have observed response rates to these surveys fall from response rates of 80% to 85% in the early 1990s to 60% or below in recent years.

“Of even greater concern, there appears to be an acceleration in the decline in the last 5 years or so, suggesting the possibility that this decline reflects a long-term permanent change,” they write.

The ag economists say reduced response rates could introduce bias or error into USDA estimates.

“For example, bias may occur if higher yielding farms drop out,” they write. “Reduced response will almost assuredly introduce error to the estimates, making them noisier and randomly more inaccurate. This will be most noticeable in county estimates.”

One possible solution would be to increase the sample size, but that could prove cost-prohibitive, the economists note. And it may expose an additional problem, they add.

“If the reasons behind low response rates are systemic, larger sample sizes will not necessarily counteract lower response rates,” they write.

So what are the reasons behind this change, anyway? Producers have claimed time is an issue, and privacy concerns are also prevalent, according to the ag economists. Technology trends may be involved as well, as land lines have been steadily replaced with smartphones.

Despite criticisms surrounding the accuracy of USDA and NASS estimates, the ag economists argue that these surveys provide value, and their absence would create marketplace imbalances.

“In a market without this free information, large firms might well be able to invest in market intelligence that small firms and farms would not have available,” they write. “Voluntary participation in surveys that gather such information is essential for USDA continuing its role as an objective, unbiased provider of market intelligence and is crucial for accuracy in design and implementation of farm policies.”

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