By JOHN O'CONNELL
The National Potato Council is investigating options to restore USDA potato stocks estimates cut due to budget sequestration, including industry funding to cover the work or identifying offsetting cuts to less important spud reports.
USDA officials said they'll listen to suggestions but can't promise to enact them.
Sequestration -- capping government spending -- went into effect March 1. As a result, USDA announced its National Agricultural Statistics Service would suspend several commodity reports for the remainder of the fiscal year, including potato stocks reports and reports pertaining to other commodities.
John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of NPC, said the potato stocks reports offer the industry's only data on crop usage by processors and are vital for making inventory-based decisions.
USDA spokeswoman Sue King acknowledged NASS agreed to estimate what it would cost NPC to cover the reports, but added, "No commitment has been made, and we are still working on the cost estimate."
King said USDA also can't promise to accept offsetting cuts to some of the other 21 annual NASS reports containing potato statistics.
"NASS always welcomes industry feedback and recommendations to improve our programs. However, in this case, NASS needed to consider many other elements such as budget goals, fiscal restraints and our ability to still produce estimates that are based on solid indications," King said.
Keeling is concerned about the precedent of offering industry assistance and knows of no available industry funding source.
Combined, cutting reports should save USDA $5.88 million of the nearly $118 million NASS budget for agricultural estimates, though no figures were available on savings of potato stocks report cuts.
"We are more than halfway through the year and have very limited opportunities to reach the budget reduction requirement," King said.
The Feb. 15 potato stocks report has already been published. The April 17 and June 14 stocks reports have been cut, as has stocks data typically included in a Sept. 19 annual potato summary. It's uncertain if the stocks report scheduled for Dec. 12, during the next fiscal year, will be published.
United Potato Growers of America President and CEO Jerry Wright said fresh growers and processors use the reports to "understand what's in inventory and what's being produced in a system so they can balance supply."
Understanding supply has been especially important lately due to a large 2012 spud crop that's driven down fresh prices.
"There's no question that there are other reports, both inside the potato industry and outside of the potato industry, that have far less usefulness that could be cut instead of this," Wright said. "Our expectation is as we work with NPC we'll hopefully influence the decision."
Jim Tiede, a southeast Idaho grower on the NPC Executive Committee, doubts growers would support any added fees, but believes offsetting cuts to other spud reports would be palatable.