A plan to drastically reduce the size of the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Wisconsin office in Madison will limit key information that is worth millions of dollars to the industry, the state's agriculture secretary said.
Ben Brancel, who heads the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, opposes but doesn't think he can stop a NASS directive to move Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics into a three-state regional office based in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of a cost-saving initiative.
"I think the handwriting is on the wall," he said.
Although it is best known for publishing crop production forecasts and monthly crop reports, Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics leads the nation every year in survey production for a myriad of subjects as varied as specialty cheeses, custom corn planting, chemical applications, turfgrass practices and wine making, Brancel said.
"The volume of work they do for our state ... is huge," Brancel added. "Most farmers may not see the direct benefit, but I would say the information derived from those surveys is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to some and millions of dollars to others."
Brancel said he doesn't expect a regional office to offer as many state-specific surveys.
"When you regionalize and ... don't have it in the presence in the state you are operating in, it's going to make it much more difficult to accomplish as much as we have on an annual basis," he said.
If the NASS plan is approved by Congress, as expected, the Madison office will be reduced from 18 employees to two who will handle public relations and communications with NASS' information gatherers around the state.
Some reductions have already taken place at offices around the country, said Robert Battaglia, the director of Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics.
A call to a NASS official in Washington involved with the regionalization plan was not returned.
Bruce Jones, an agriculture economics professor at UW-Madison, said an ag statistics office should be maintained in Madison because of Wisconsin's importance to the national dairy industry. "You have to come to Wisconsin and keep track with some certainties and accurate measures to find out about the health of the dairy industry," he said.
NASS experts claim those statistics can still be accurately measured from Des Moines because analysts will keep in touch with information gatherers in Wisconsin, Jones said. But he echoed Brancel's concerns about whether a regional office will provide as much data as needed in Wisconsin.
"When you look Wisconsin people in the eye on a day-to-day basis, you are thinking about Wisconsin in terms of the projects and the things you want to measure. When you are in Des Moines, you are more likely going to see more Iowans and you might have this bias toward satisfying the Iowan needs than looking at Wisconsin's needs," Jones said.
Brancel said ag directors from other states were in awe of Wisconsin's relationship with its NASS office when they gathered to discuss the regionalization plan.
"I said it has helped us with guiding people with investments, it has helped in deciding what research needs to be done, it has helped organizations refocus on areas of weakness or promote areas of strength," Brancel said. "Most of them said, 'I wish we had that.'"