Reporter’s guide: basic agribusiness research tools

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Farmer Craig Anderson of Mansfield, Ill., prepares his tractor's auto steer, which will navigate the machine during most of spring planting.

To provide for an ever-growing population, farmers and ranchers are growing more crops and are raising more livestock than ever before.

Farmers are projected to plant a record-amount of soybeans in 2014, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture projections. Meat producers will ship more and more to China to keep up with the country’s demand for beef, chicken and pork.

Yet, reporting on these and other agribusiness topics can be challenging.

The USDA administers more than two dozen agencies and offices. Each agency monitors different aspects of the agribusiness world. Understanding farming often means also understanding climatology, geology and economics.

Here are some basic tools that reporters can use to cover agribusiness.


Ag 101

Ag 101 has demographic and economic information. It also has a glossary to help define ag-specific terms such as “limit feeding,” “tillage,” “shoat” and “pullet.”

Ag101It features information on crop, pork, poultry, dairy and beef production.

Ag 101 describes which crops are major U.S. crops, while providing historical background. It also explains the different steps involved with crop production. Those steps include soil preparation, planting, nutrient management, pest management, irrigation, drainage, harvest and storage.

“Technological improvements have allowed the productivity of the American farmer to increase dramatically,” reads Ag 101’s website. “During colonial times one farmer fed four others. Today, one farmer produces food for 130 others.”

Ag 101 gives a brief overview of American agriculture. It covers the primary commodities produced today and the methods of producing those commodities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees Ag 101.


Center for Agribusiness Excellence

The Center for Agribusiness Excellence highlights USDA resources.

CAE

“The mission of the Center of Agribusiness Excellence (CAE) is to provide research, training, and resources for data warehousing and data mining of agribusiness and agriculture data,” reads the center’s mission statement. “The CAE provides facilities and staff to make full use of data warehousing and data mining technologies for development of Agribusiness Decision Support Systems and Agricultural Risk Management Products.”

The Center for Agribusiness Excellence is part of Tarleton State University.


Center for Responsive Politics – Open Secrets

OpenSecrets.org tracks the influence of money on U.S. politics. It reviews how that money affects public policy and citizens’ lives.

OpenSecretsReporters can use OpenSecrets.org to find political campaign contributions by company or by field, including agribusiness.

OpenSecrets.org has embeddable widgets for monitoring election races and real-time tools for tracking money.

“We pursue our mission largely through our award-winning website, OpenSecrets.org, which is the most comprehensive resource for federal campaign contributions, lobbying data and analysis available anywhere,” reads the resource’s mission statement. “And for other organizations and news media, the Center’s exclusive data powers their online features tracking money in politics – counting cash to make change.”

OpenSecrets.org is nonpartisan, independent and a nonprofit organization.


Farmdoc Daily

Farmdoc Daily’s features information about crop insurance, market prices and crop yields.

That information is available in text form and via MP3 podcast.

Farmdoc“In the agricultural community, the need for sound economic information and unbiased analysis has never been greater,” states the Farmdoc Daily’s website.

Among its content, Farmdoc presents information on farm finance, farmland rent, farmland prices and agricultural law.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics oversees Farmdoc.


USDA Office of Inspector General

The Office of Inspector General has federal reports, investigations, press releases and audits.

OIGOn the resource’s “News release and Reports” page, reporters can search for federal audits by year and by agency, including the Farm Service Agency and other ag-specific agencies.

Many of the audits provide information on government waste and mismanagement.

The Office of Inspector General released “Fiscal Year 2012 Farm Service Agency: Farm Assistance Program Payments,” in July 2013. It is an example of one such audit. Auditors found that “the Farm Service Agency did not properly record and adequately support all fiscal year 2012 FSA payments.”

The Office of Inspector General seeks “to promote effectiveness and integrity in the delivery of USDA agricultural programs.”


USDA Census of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture is a leading source for American farming facts and figures.

CensusIt provides information on production expenses, market values and operator characteristics.

Use the fact sheets to efficiently sift through the Census statistics. Fact sheets allow reporters to sort information by demographics, economics and geographic categories. A “Find Data By” section allows reporters to sort information by congressional district, by historical Census year, by ZIP code, by state and by county. Reporters can also sort by race, ethnicity and gender.

For example, a Census search of Champaign County, Ill., reveals that Champaign’s top crop items are “corn for grain” and “soybeans for beans.” Champaign County is Illinois’ sixth largest producer of corn and fourth largest producer of soybeans. The county profile shows that the typical Champaign farmer is about 58 years old, white and male.

The Census gathers information every five years, focusing on U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. It contains information on every state and county in the country. The USDA announced that it will release the most-recent Census on May 2, 2014.


USDA Economic Research Service

USDA’s Economic Research Service offers data, charts and maps.

ERSIt includes specialized topics such as aquaculture and bioenergy. It also features more traditional agricultural topics such as animal production and vegetable production.

“The ERS mission is to inform and enhance public and private decision making on economic and policy issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and rural development,” states the resource’s website. “With over 300 employees, The Economic Research Service is a primary source of economic information and research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

By clicking on the “data” tab at the top of the page, reporters can browse through a list of data by topic. Reports can further sort through the results by either relevance or by date. Each search result has an icon next to it that distinguishes it as a chart, a file, an app or a map.

The Economic Research service also publishes an online magazine called Amber Waves. Recent examples of the articles in Amber Waves include “Eating Better at School: Can New Policies improve Children’s Food Choices?” and “Cropland Consolidation and the Future of Family Farms.”


USDA Economics, Statistics and Market Information System

The USDA Economics, Statistics and Market Information System includes nearly 2,500 reports and datasets that cover different U.S. and international agriculture-related topics.

Systems “These materials cover U.S. and international agriculture and related topics,” reads the resource’s about page. “Most reports are text files that contain time-sensitive information. Most data sets are in spreadsheet format and include time-series data that are updated yearly.”

The system is a project between Cornell University and several USDA agencies.


USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

The National Agricultural Statistics Service is another resource that gathers agriculture data.Nass

“The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) conducts hundreds of surveys every year and prepares reports covering virtually every aspect of U.S. agriculture,” states a description of the service. “Production and supplies of food and fiber, prices paid and received by farmers, farm labor and wages, farm finances, chemical use, and changes in the demographics of U.S. producers are only a few examples.”

It has data on crops, demographics, farm economics, environmental issues, and livestock. It also has charts and maps on topics such as specialty crops, floriculture crops, land values and many other topics.


USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services

Congress established the Natural Resources Conservation Services program in 1935. Today, it is a leading source of information related to natural resources and conservation.

NRCSA newsroom section gathers press releases on all things having to do with conservation and land protection.

Recent releases feature reports on nutrient runoff, analyses on water quality indexes and summaries of different conservation initiatives.

An online soil-survey tool showcases information about a particular county’s soil composition.

The Natural Resources Conservation Services works with private landowners “through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the water, air, plants and animals that result in productive lands and health ecosystems.”


Government Accountability Office

GAOThe Government Accountability Office is an independent agency that works for Congress to investigate the use of public funds.

Its mission is to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve federal performance.

“We provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair and balanced,” states the Office’s about page.”

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