Jul 18, 2007
Budget Problems Put Growers in Danger of Losing Valuable Ag Stats

When vegetable and fruit growers get those government survey forms in the mail, they can be torn about whether to fill them out or toss them into the wastebasket. There’s always been a debate over who benefits from government-compiled statistics.

That theoretical debate became more real in Michigan this spring, when the state government – seeking to cut hundreds of millions of dollars of spending to balance the budget – withdrew its share of support in the state-federal partnership called the Michigan Agricultural Statistics Service.

The sudden cut left projects unfinished. The results of the Fruit Tree Rotational Survey, for example, for which $77,000 had already been invested in gathering data, could not be compiled because funding for staff was terminated and three state-federal employees lost their jobs. The program needed $27,000 to finish.

The annual Michigan Agricultural Statistics publication, also truncated, needed money to reach completion.

The Michigan vegetable industry was more fortunate. Its last survey was done in 2005.

“We’re fortunate to have pretty current data,” said Dave Smith, executive secretary of the Michigan Vegetable Council. “By the time of our next survey, scheduled for 2010, we hope everything will be worked out.”

After the governor’s executive order of May 4 ended funding for the partnership that began in 1920, the question of “what to do” faced specialty crop producers and the federal government.

Dave Kleweno, state director of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, said he was faced with the question of whether Michigan growers valued the statistics enough to want to have them gathered. A second question: Would state funding be restored in the future and should his agency provide some kind of “bridge funding” until then? If state funding was indeed coming to an end, would the state’s fruit and vegetable industries come up with the money through non-government assessments?

Kleweno turned to Michigan Farm Bureau to organize commodity group meetings so he could pose those questions. Bob Boehm, manager of the Commodity and Markets Department at MFB, set up the meetings.

The upshot was: “We dodged the bullet this year,” Boehm said.

Needing about $27,000 to finish the fruit survey, Kleweno agreed to provide funding for a staff person “the fill the gap” left in this fiscal year. The Michigan State Horticultural Society put up $4,250, and Michigan’s cherry and apple committees put up money as well.

For the Michigan Agricultural Statistics publication, 10 Michigan organizations put up a combined total of $15,000 to pay “their share,” and NASS provided the rest.

What about the future? Kleweno said the short-term decision “sets the stage for re-examination” of the overall program. Boehm agrees there are “bigger things to figure out” as Michigan’s legislature and governor continue their battle this summer to revise the state’s basic revenue and spending structure.

The condition of Michigan’s taxing and spending system is alleged to be the worst in the United States, reflecting the state’s flagging, car-based economy and its political divisions. Last year, the state’s Republican-led legislature repealed the unpopular Single Business Tax, eliminating $2 billion in annual revenue while providing no replacement. The state’s Republican Senate and Democratic governor are poster children for polar views.

Under federal law, Kleweno said, USDA operates a program of data collection that is independent of the states in which it operates. It gathers statistics on basic commodity crops and livestock and conducts the Agricultural Census. Some states augment these programs.

“Different states have different programs and different ways of funding them,” he said. “States such as North Carolina and New York have developed similar programs, mirroring the Michigan model.

“In most states, the related agricultural industry helps support the survey program with some funding. Of the seven major fruit-growing states, California is the only one that depends entirely on funding from assessments. Their industry sectors are large and fee-based. States with medium-sized programs have a mix of state, industry and grant funding. Small states depend strictly on state funding to support special fruit surveys. Medium-sized states such as New York depend on state staff to provide the necessary infrastructure to maintain a specialty survey program. California is unique in that it conducts nearly a dozen acreage and production forecast surveys that give it critical mass to provide ongoing staff support using the assessment funds.”

Michigan’s legislature began funding the annual compilation of a publication called Michigan Agricultural Statistics in 1920. That publication series began in 1886 and provides the basic source of data on Michigan agriculture.

In 1991, the legislature added money to fund “rotational surveys,” two of which provide basic information about Michigan’s vegetable industry and fruit industry.

“The federal program provides only basic information on major specialty items,” Kleweno said. “Without a state program, the fruit, vegetable, Christmas tree, nursery and turf industries will not have current and statistically reliable information. There is no other source of this information for turf, many vegetables and all of the commodity-specific data.”

Kleweno ticked off some of the implications if the programs are not continued.

Shifts in new fruit plantings and removals will not be known.

Changes in direct and wholesale sales, organics, agritourism and consumer demand will not be evaluated and measured.

Information on the impact of diseases such as fire blight, plum pox and neglected orchards will not be known.

The value of the specialty commodity sector will depend on incomplete and out-of-date information, making it difficult to promote, expand and remain competitive.

Data users such as Michigan State University will not have current information needed for specialty program grants, training and staff resources.

“This is how we got funding for abandoned orchard removal approved under the (Natural Resources Conservation Service’s) EQIP program,” said Allyn Anthony, executive director of the Michigan State Horticultural Society. “We had data from the Fruit Rotational Survey showing how many abandoned orchards there were and where they were located.”

Smith, the vegetable council director, concurs.

“While growers don’t like filling out the survey forms, the data they generate is used in many ways. For us, it provides evidence that Michigan has a viable vegetable industry.”

Dawn Drake, manager of the Michigan Processing Apple Growers division of Farm Bureau’s MACMA subsidiary, said the fruit data was influential in EPA’s decision to make gentamicin available to some Michigan apple growers under a Section 18 exemption this year, and that current and historical data are used by her group in negotiating for processing apple prices.

Buyers want to know who is planting what varieties where.

The Farm Service Agency uses the “credible and consistent” data available from NASS when investigating grower insurance and disaster claims.

Anthony said the various fruit organizations organized under the Michigan State Horticultural Society umbrella debated the merits of putting up industry money. Nobody wanted to set the precedent for industry funding, which neither the hort society nor the vegetable council is equipped to provide, he said.

The big hope is that the governor and legislature can agree on a plan this summer to restructure state income and spending and continue ag statistics as a state-provided service.

“The auto industry they built the tax structure around is in the dumper,” Anthony said. “A new structure needs to be built.”

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