Statistics Canada needs to fix its ag reporting

The grain transportation backlog has put Statistics Canada field crop reporting under the microscope. Why didn’t we know that a huge crop was coming last year? How were the railways supposed to gear up when initial estimates were tens of millions of tonnes below what was actually produced?

Suddenly, the entire industry has a graphic example of why accurate yield and production estimates serve useful purposes. Whether the railways would have heeded the production forecasts is another question, but not having accurate information soon enough gives them yet another excuse for not mobilizing adequate resources to do the job.

Agricultural economist Richard Gray has suggested a network of agrologists doing yield determinations across Western Canada during the growing season as a replacement for Statistics Canada’s farmer surveys. It’s his contention that farmers can’t always accurately estimate their potential production.

Some official yield determinations at benchmark locations may be a useful addition to production forecasts, but fixing how Statistics Canada operates is a bigger part of the solution. It does thousands of surveys with farmers in each province multiple times during the growing season, but in many ways it is stuck in the past and mired down by process.

It’s rare to find a farmer who likes Statistics Canada and who thinks its field crop reporting is a useful service. The process for this year is just beginning. In recent weeks, Statistics Canada has been badgering producers for their seeding intentions. Many farmers either try to avoid the calls or lie through their teeth.

Since the survey taker typically knows nothing about agriculture, they’ll accept stupid answers and not realize they’ve been scammed.

Most farmers think that survey results just drive down market prices. For example, Statistics Canada will release the result of its seeding intentions survey April 24. Whatever crops are showing a larger acreage increase than expected will be targeted by analysts as crops that may see pricing pressure.

There’s never been a public relations exercise to convince farmers that good information is valuable to the entire industry. If there was no government survey, you can bet that grain buyers would be making their own internal estimates, and those results wouldn’t be shared with producers.

There’s no use surveying producers who don’t want to participate. Explain why good information is useful and seek the co-operation of competent growers who agree to be part of the process. Even pay them a bit for their time and effort.

Most importantly, Statistics Canada has to join the 21st century. It needs to use the tools that are available to dramatically shorten the time between collecting information from producers and when the data is tabulated and released.

The way it is now, the information is old and out of date by the time it’s announced. A few weeks of lag time can make a big difference in acreage estimates in the spring and can make a huge difference in yield estimates in the summer and fall.

On many of the minor crops, acreage estimates obtained through surveys have long been suspect. Seeded acreage information from crop insurance should be used to verify the survey results coming from producers.

Satellite imaging should also play a role, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for talking to people on the ground.

The whole process needs a shake up from process to public relations.

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