EVANSVILLE, Ind., Feb. 4 (UPI) -- America's farmers are making critical management decisions in the dark this winter, after the U.S. government shutdown put the Department of Agriculture more than a month behind in reporting crop and market data.
This is the time of year growers across the country take out loans, purchase machinery, decide what they will plant -- and buy seed. The USDA's data on price outlooks and international supply and demand for agricultural commodities can be crucial in making those decisions.
"Here, we've been a month with no information," said Tim Bardole, a corn and soy grower in Iowa. "As far as planting goes, we've got our seed bought. We kind of took a shot in the dark. When the reports come out, we'll find out how far off we were."
Farmers from all commodities are feeling the strain.
Four of the five agencies that produce regular crop reports stopped publishing them after the government shutdown Dec. 22. As of Jan. 24, there were 62 unpublished reports, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Since the government reopened Jan. 25, those agencies have scrambled to get the reports out. But it will take time. And with another potential shutdown on the horizon, officials aren't sure if they will catch up.
"There's such a huge backlog," said Jim Barrett, a spokesman for the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. "We know people are clamoring. It's a race to see what we can do before the potential next shutdown. But it's very hard to schedule these things with an ax over our head."
Among the unissued reports are the January World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, which tracks the expectations on international supply and use for grains, oilseeds and cotton. That report is produced by the USDA's Economic Research Service, which also is behind on outlook reports for a variety of other commodities, the American Farm Bureau Federation said.
The Foreign Agricultural Service is behind on its export sales reports, as well.
The statistics service has several dozen unfinished reports -- and the backlog means that upcoming ones also will be delayed. Among those are annual reports on winter wheat and canola seedlings that farmers need to decide what to plant.
"Everyone is speculating," said Jeff Mertz, a farmer in North Dakota who grows several crops, including wheat, canola and soy. "People come to rely on that information. They look at the expected sales and make an educated guess on what to plant. It's a lot of uncertainty when you don't have those numbers."
The data is perhaps even more critical to farmers this year because the multiple retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods to China, Mexico and other countries means that crop prices and demand will vary widely from previous years, said Veronica Nigh, an economist with the Farm Bureau.
Even so, it's difficult to predict how big an impact the information blackout will have on individual farmers in the coming year. A lot depends on how strongly they rely on the reports and how closely their predictions align with the real data, she said.
"We'll know over the next few months what kind of impact this will have," Nigh said. "It's on a farm-by-farm basis. Farmers are making a lot of important management decisions this time of year, and this makes those management decisions more difficult."
The various USDA agencies are slowly releasing the unpublished reports. The statistics service published its first report on agricultural prices since the shutdown Thursday. The Foreign Agricultural Service published its first report Thursday, as well.
"We've just got to wait and see," Bardole said. "And if the market surprises us, it will hurt. It will put us behind."