Accuracy of crop quality stats big question mark

We know prairie crop yields will be above average, but at this point we can only guess at the quality. My guess is that there will be significant quality issues, particularly in some crops and in some regions.

Statistics Canada was set to release its first 2016 production estimate Aug. 23. For all the complaints about its accuracy, the industry still pays attention. Statistics Canada numbers tend to be the benchmark from which industry analysts explain why they think the actual number is either higher or lower.

Statistics Canada has two big problems.

One is that farmers are hostile to the process, often providing begrudging co-operation or giving skewed estimates they think will sway the market.

A public relations campaign is needed to explain why accurate crop estimates are useful to the entire industry and especially to farmers.

The other problem is the time lag between when farmers are surveyed and when the information is tabulated and released. A lot can and usually does happen over those several weeks.

In this modern age of communication this problem could be addressed, but Statistics Canada remains oblivious.

Some observers suggest that resources should be deployed to do professional yield determinations at the field level to improve accuracy, but it’s more likely that fancy satellite technology will be increasingly integrated into the estimating process.

The importance of accurate production estimates was vividly demonstrated in 2013 when farmers, grain companies and the railways were all surprised by the record volume harvested.

The big wild card this year is crop quality, and unfortunately there are few methods to accurately estimate what will end up in the bin.

The amazingly wet summer in many regions raised early suspicions that fusarium could be a big concern in wheat and durum. Disease has been rampant in lentils this year, but how badly has quality been affected?

Field observations are an indicator, but not very definitive. It takes time for samples to be submitted and graded, and the results change as harvest advances. Poor weather can dramatically aggravate grading issues.

As farmers, we sometimes harbour the hope that quality can be upgraded after harvest. Most of the diseased seed is smaller, so perhaps it can be cleaned out.

If sieves don’t work, maybe a gravity table will help. Or perhaps, it can all be colour sorted. That technology continues to improve.

A new piece of technology called the BioMill can actually sort grain by chemical composition. Fusarium-affected kernels can be removed from a sample even when the disease isn’t visually evident. However, only a small number of these machines are in place.

If quality challenges do end up being significant this year, there will be a scramble to attempt upgrades with all the cleaning and sorting resources available.

Unfortunately, volume can quickly overwhelm the upgrading capacity that is available.

While it’s often impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it would be useful to know the size and scope of the problem in advance.

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