By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The USDA’s statistical service is restructuring, but farmers and others who rely on information from the agency shouldn’t notice a difference, officials said.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) will shift to a regional office format effective Feb. 24, though states will continue to have staffed field, or presence, offices, said Jay Johnson, who will become regional director of the Great Lakes region.
For the reorganization, the country has been divided into 12 regions, each with a central office. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio will be in the Great Lakes region, with the headquarters in East Lansing. Illinois and Missouri will be in the Heartland region (St. Louis); Kentucky and Tennessee will join North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia in the Eastern Mountain region (Louisville); and Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin will be in the Upper Midwest region (Des Moines).
Once the reorganization is complete, the number of employees working for various regional and field offices will be approximately 350, down from 450, Johnson said. Eventually, field offices will have two employees, while the staffs of regional offices will increase.
In East Lansing, the staff will be 31, almost double the pre-reorganization amount, he said.
The USDA followed a few guiding principles while deciding the best approach to restructuring, Johnson said. The plan allows NASS to continue to offer high-quality statistics while ensuring the accuracy and integrity of the data, he noted. Budget concerns were also a factor in the reorganization process, which started about 18 months ago.
NASS has 46 field offices. Several northeastern states had previously combined with a central office in New Hampshire.
“Right now, we have 46 offices and 46 slightly different ways of doing things,” Johnson explained. “There were various ways to interpret the statistics. The quality of the data will improve by decreasing the number of offices interpreting it.”
The more than 3,000 enumerators who collect the data nationwide will not change, he stated.
“We want to make sure we maintain a local presence,” he said. “We’ll be working together (with other offices in the region) and will combine our resources. We won’t be sitting in a regional office blindly making estimates for other states.”
In field offices with two employees, one will be renamed state statistician with a job description that focuses more on outreach, Johnson said. The state statistician will work with local commodity groups, area universities, Farm Bureaus and state officials, he added. The second person in the office, the survey statistician, will work with data collectors.
Greg Matli, who will serve as Indiana’s state statistician, said he’s looking forward to meeting with farmers and others across the state. Matli, current deputy director of the Indiana field office, has been with NASS in the state since 1999.
“I’ll get to do more outreach, to talk to famers and be sure the face of NASS is still out there,” he said. “I want to make sure people have access to me to ask questions, such as how do we come up with our numbers.”
Matli said he would still review any statistical information for Indiana just as he does now. “The only difference is, I’ll be doing it via video conference,” he explained. “There won’t be any noticeable change in the process. Farmers will not notice a difference in our processes at all.”
Many people don’t seem to be aware of the change and of those who are, most seem curious but not overly concerned, said Cheryl Turner, who will become Ohio’s state statistician. She is currently director of Ohio’s field office.
“They realize it’ll be the same people collecting the data and analyzing the data,” she said. “There should be no change from the farm perspective.”
Turner said her new role will be more of a public relations position with the goal of “talking us up” around the state.
Nationally, NASS releases more than 500 reports annually. State offices combine for about 9,000 reports and news releases yearly, Johnson said.
As the official date for the reorganization nears, he knows this is a taxing time for many employees. “Professionally, it’s a challenging and exciting time,” he noted. “We’re trying to pull together three different offices.
“But from a personal standpoint, I have mixed emotions. I know all these people. Change isn’t comfortable for anyone. This is a very troublesome time for some of them. They may have to resign or relocate (to another office) with their family. It’s very stressful.”