By WILLIAM NEUMAN
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?
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.