Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2012 11:00 AM
Computer-savvy teams process findings, visit every field in Northwest
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Rather than relying solely on acreage estimates from a USDA growers' survey, the U.S. potato industry is visiting every spud field in Idaho and other major potato production areas for a fourth year.
The Idaho count, which started in May and involves a half dozen two-member teams working under United Potato Growers of America, is now wrapping up. Teams are also conducting in-person checks of all the potato fields in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, the Klamath Basin, Southwestern Colorado and most of Wisconsin.
Using USDA maps listing the precise acreage of every farm field, team members log the fields they see planted to potatoes into a database.
UPGA President and CEO Jerry Wright said accountants are hired to conduct audits of the physical counts and have determined they're between 98.5 and 99.5 percent accurate. Results are offered to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service to hone its numbers. They won't be available until the July 11 NASS crop size report is published.
Teams drive to farms in every state but Colorado, where fields are tabulated from the air.
"Each state is responsible for their state's counting. The hardware, process and methodology is common to all of us, and it was created in Idaho," Wright said.
The overall process involves about 15 teams, comprising mostly college students who are adept with computers. Wright would not disclose the total cost of the effort, which is funded with help from state potato commissions, but said it's significant.
"This is growers deciding they're not going to rely on the government to do something," Wright said. "They're doing it at a fraction of the cost that the government does."
Vince Matthews, director of the Idaho Agricultural Statistics Service, said his agency only looks at the UPGA numbers after completing its estimates.
"It's very helpful to have a history of what the results of our survey have been and what has come from United," Matthews said. "We can look back and see how ours compare from previous years. If there's a pattern there, we would take that in consideration in the final number we would come up with."
NASS follows up its mailed survey with telephone surveys and some in-person surveys, in which farmers are shown aerial photographs of their land and asked which crops they planted. Matthews said the NASS Idaho estimate is generally close to the UPGA number.
For example, NASS estimated Idaho potato acreage in 2011 at 320,000 acres, compared with 319,000 by UPGA.
"There really isn't anything else like that where the industry is doing something in terms of surveying the fields themselves," Matthews said.
Dan Hargraves, executive director of Southern Idaho Potato Cooperative, said having precise acreage numbers is important in his contract negotiations with processors.
"I think it's really terrific that we've got the funding through the Idaho Potato Commission to do this acreage count each year, not diminishing what NASS has done," Hargraves said. "It's good to have the actual physical count to accompany that. From my perspective that's something that was long overdue."