Harvest delay throws wrench in data

Statistics Canada’s survey started when many crops were under snow, meaning final report will need analytical guesswork

Prairie crops were a mess this fall, and that’s creating a mess of adjustments in Statistics Canada’s crop production report to be released in December.

“This is a very unusual situation,” said Yves Gilbert, head of the Statistics Canada wing that produces the crop production reports and estimates.

“The way our surveys are de-signed right now, it’s making it very hard to adapt the actual collection period in the risk of not making our deadlines.”

The crop production report that comes out in early December gives the crop markets their best picture of what farmers ended up producing. This year’s version will be published Dec. 6.

Its findings are heavily based on a nationwide survey of more than 25,000 farmers, which this year took place from Oct. 21 to Nov. 13.

Statistics Canada recognized the challenge from the beginning because many of the farmers it surveyed in the first days had much of their crop still out, often sitting under a blanket of snow.

But things have improved.

“We have fewer and fewer of those comments saying, ‘we will not be able to harvest,’ ” as the survey continued and farmers managed to harvest most of their crops.

However, the agency doesn’t have the resources to go back and re-interview everybody.

“We interview roughly 26,000 farmers,” said Gilbert. Reinterviewing the first farmers “is something that we wish that we were able to cope with, but it’s not something as easy as 1-2-3.”

That creates the need for a lot of analytical guesswork because crops left in the field generally see yield losses and quality degradation and some acres will never be harvested at all.

“It’s not an easy call.”

Gilbert said Statistics Canada is monitoring temperature and other post-survey conditions for unharvested crops and talking to other crop watchers closer to the fields.

“We are in constant consultation with our provincial partners,” said Gilbert.

Farmer surveys are always rife with small inaccuracies as farmers must guess the quality and quantity of crops just harvested.

It is thought that some farmers intentionally under-report the amount they have harvested to try to move market prices higher.

However, this year the markets will be grappling with not just the usual inherent inaccuracies but also with all the extra uncertainty introduced by the bad harvesting conditions and the extrapolations forced upon the statisticians.

Whatever numbers Statistics Canada publishes Dec. 6, the market won’t consider it anything like the last word on crop production.

The market will likely put more attention than usual on the end-of-2016 grain stocks report, which will be collected from 8,600 farms in December.

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