The apple industry has depended on the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s crop estimate as an important tool in decision making.

The U.S. Apple Association has appealed to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to restore the August apple crop forecast, maintaining that it is vital to the industry as it plans for marketing of the crop.

“For decades, the apple industry has relied upon the August apple crop estimate as an important tool in decision making,” Nancy Foster, president of USApple, said in her letter. “We were greatly surprised to learn that USDA’s annual forecast of the U.S. apple crop contained in the August crop report would be discontinued.”

The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s decision to eliminate certain crop and livestock reports starting this year had an impact on at least two fruit industries, apples and tart cherries.
In October, the National Agricultural Statistics Service announced that, because of cuts in its budget, it would eliminate several crop reports. After the October decision, several reversals occurred—and the apple industry did not realize its August report remained canceled.

Both the August apple crop estimate and the June tart cherry crop estimate are key starting points for important industry decisions.

Some confusion in the whole process left the Apple Association thinking all was well until January, when Good Fruit Grower discovered the August apple crop estimate had, in fact, been eliminated. The U.S Apple Association uses that crop report for industry planning that starts with its Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference in Chicago. That annual event takes place at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel August 16-17 this year.

The drama started October 27, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that budget cuts would compel NASS to discontinue or limit reports on farm numbers, rice, catfish and trout, floriculture, nursery, sheep and goats, chemical use, cattle, distillers co-products, bees and honey, hops, potato stocks, mink, and certain in-season forecasts and estimates about fruits and vegetables.

That set phones ringing at NASS.

On December 9, NASS announced, after consulting with joint Congressional committees, that additional funding had been made available and most of the reports had been reinstated.
“The budget came in much better than we anticipated,” said Joseph Prusacki, director of the NASS statistics division. “We didn’t get every dollar back, but we did much better than we thought we would.” He confirmed that the June report on tart cherry crop size was reinstated, but said the apple crop report in August had not been.

Was that final? “Right now, it is cast in stone,” he said in early January. “Every decision is final until it’s not,” he said.

“Lots of constituents contacted us to explain how important some report was to their industry,” he added. “That’s how things get changed. The industry sends a request to us and creates a paper trail, telling us how they use reports and how important they are to them.”

Mark Seetin, the director of government and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Apple Association, believed that the apple industry report had been restored. “You were right,” he told Good Fruit Grower after again calling officials at NASS. “The report has not been reinstated.”

The next day, Foster began the process of creating the paper trail.

“We need this report,” Seetin said. “It is an important centerpiece of our economic analysis, and the August timing is critical.”

The next day, Foster set about creating that paper trail.

“USDA’s August apple crop estimate is a critically needed tool for growers, packer-shippers, marketers, and exporters in developing marketing plans for the highly competitive domestic and export markets,” Foster wrote. “In addition to the impact on near-term decision making, the industry relies on data from the estimate for the development of long term capital investments that build and strengthen infrastructure and provide job growth so necessary for economic recovery.”

At the Chicago meeting in August, USApple uses the NASS apple report, which historically comes out a week to ten days earlier, as a key element in making its own assessment of the size and condition of the crop. It gathers other information as well. Leaders come from all over the world and report on conditions in their countries. Leaders in the United States industry caucus by regions. They look at the USDA numbers and, state by state, make their own estimates, usually by evaluating the NASS numbers and comparing them with their own information and experience. The NASS report provides a key benchmark from which to work.

Similar NASS reports on peaches and cherries in June set the stage for part of the annual Fruit Crop Guesstimate, scheduled this year for June 28 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It is sponsored by the Michigan Frozen Food Packers Association and draws fruit industry leaders from across the United States and Canada.

NASS’s tart cherry report is even more important because industry is governed by a federal marketing order. The June estimate of crop size is used by the Cherry Industry Administrative Board to set the marketing restriction for the year. Perry Hedin is the administrator of that board.

“We went through about the same thing the apple industry did,” he said about the NASS reports. “We asked NASS about the plans to eliminate the report. Then they said needed 50 grand from the industry if they were to continue to do it. Then they said they got the money and would do the estimate.”

In administering the order, he said, “the starting premise is the USDA report on crop size.  The board can choose an amalgamation of other estimates if we think the USDA estimate is off, but we tend not to.”

The final restriction percentage for the year is determined in September, but by that time CIAB has compiled the weekly reports on pounds of cherries processed, which all tart cherry handlers are required under the order to report. The industry knows how many pounds of cherries were harvested and processed. The NASS final estimate of total crop size is still relevant because it tells growers and processors how much of the crop was utilized.

In talking to Good Fruit Grower, Prusacki lamented that growers complain about the crop reports and being asking repeatedly to provide information. But when the reports go away, they realize how important the information is to them.