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Agriculture reports critical to farmers are casualties of government shutdown

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Agricultural reports are casualties of the federal government shutdown, making decisions on when to sell crops and livestock a challenge for farmers.

Marketing decisions have suddenly become riskier for farmers who depend on weekly data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department’s National Agriculture Statistics Service has stopped releasing reports on supply and demand, exports and prices on its website. Websites including past information also have been closed.

Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald C. Robbins said the absence of information has added an element of uncertainty to marketing decisions now under consideration at his 950-cow farm. Without up-to-date national data, he said, it will be harder to decide when to sell the operation’s corn, soybeans, wheat and milk.

“We rely on those supply-demand and acreage reports that come out weekly,” Mr. Robbins said.

This month, for example, Mr. Robbins will not have access to a milk-production report for the month of September. That report would have shed light on when milk could be marketed at the best price. If the market looks promising, the farm sometimes will establish forward contracts in which milk is sold in advance.

“If we see export numbers down and supply coming up because they’re increasing production, we’ll (conclude) the prices are going to drop and sell now,” Mr. Robbins said. “But if we see strong export numbers and low production numbers, we should probably sit tight because the price of milk will be rising.”

Instead of relying on USDA data, farmers like Mr. Robbins will be compelled to find that information from other industry sources. Although Mr. Robbins said farmers aren’t overly concerned now, they will be if the shutdown persists for a few more weeks.

“It will start to be problematic because of the information we depend on won’t be collected,” he said. “It will be hard to regenerate.”

Data collected on crops and weather in Jefferson County, for instance, could not be sent Monday to the USDA by Michael E. Hunter, field crops expert for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Nationwide, a plethora of experts like Mr. Hunter were forced to withhold information from the USDA.

“On a county basis, we report data and it goes into a clearinghouse to be compiled into a progress report,” Mr. Hunter said. “So this week, no one’s going to be able to see what percent of the corn crop is harvested.”

Farmers in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties also have been affected by the closure of the USDA’s local farm services agencies based in Watertown, Lowville and Canton. They can’t apply for new loans, sign up for government programs or receive checks for programs in which they’re already enrolled. Some farmers were awaiting government funding to be replenished at the start of the fiscal year, in October, to receive checks they are owed, said Peggy L. Murray, farm business management educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County.

But the shutdown has meant they’ll need more patience.

“A lot of farmers were waiting to get some type of loan, because the money runs out toward the end of the year,” Mrs. Murray said. “They’re now in a standstill too, because they can’t get their loan. If they were waiting to buy crops or cattle, they’re not going to do that.”

For the most part, Rodman livestock farmer Stephen G. Winkler has managed to avoid effects of the shutdown. The owner of Lucki 7 Livestock Co., an operation that raises beef cattle, hogs and poultry, already has established prices for beef and pork that will be sold through 2014. Prices usually are negotiated six months in advance.

“But if I want to replace steers or beef cattle, it’s going to be hard to predict prices” without reports from the USDA, Mr. Winkler said.

Last week, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange reported that it would temporarily suspend calculation and distribution of its hog and feeder-cattle price indexes, due to a shortage of market data. Those indexes, used to set prices for animals, are compiled based on USDA data.

Useful agricultural data still is being released by other national media outlets during the shutdown, Mr. Winkler said. For example, on Monday, a program called “AgriTalk” on Rural Radio — a satellite radio station on Sirius XM — reported the national percentages of corn and soybean crops that were harvested.

“Individuals are still going out and collecting this information for private companies, so farmers can stay on top of it,” Mr. Winkler said. “Over the short term, I don’t think a whole lot of farmers are worried, because we can still get this information on satellite radio and TV. For the next 30 days we’ll be OK, but after that it’s going to be hard to predict prices.”

Another indirect problem caused by the shutdown — which Mr. Winkler said he is more concerned about — is the passage of a federal farm bill.

Mr. Winkler said the frenzied debate in Congress over the shutdown could hamper focus on the legislation, which must be approved by the end of the year. The shutdown arrived just as the farm bill expired, but Congress has until the end of the year to retroactively approve legislation. Fall crops now being harvested are still eligible for farm subsidies.

“As long as Washington is shut down, that means the farm bill is put in the backseat,” Mr. Winkler said. “The focal point right now is universal health care, and somewhere in the middle is the farm bill.”

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