In search of 'one stop' shopping at USDA offices

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 16, 2014 - Sometime in the future, producers should be able to use precision technology to collect all of the data used in their farming operations and send verification via the Internet to their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office or crop insurance agent for collection by the Risk Management Agency (RMA). No fuss, no waiting.

“That is our ultimate goal - to be able to have our producers do downloads from their equipment to an agent or to a Farm Service Agency office,” says Michael Scuse, USDA Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.

Yet, many questions remain about when this goal will be reached and whether USDA will ever be able to bring their own aging computer systems up to date. The Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) project - initially conceived in 2004 - aims to replace the aging 1980s style computers at the over 2,200 FSA offices and streamline all of the data required to administer USDA programs, but some critics say the project is still woefully behind schedule. In the meantime, private sector solutions are emerging.

Together we can feed the Bees"

For example, MyAgData is already being used by Authorized Insurance Providers (AIPs) this crop year for acreage and production reporting in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Minnesota. But test programs in Illinois and Indiana at local Farm Service Agency offices this year didn't quite work as efficiently as one might hope. The data was collected and matched to the common land units required for USDA acreage and production reports, but then was printed and had to be hand-entered at the local FSA office.

“It's a bit like paving the cow path, compared to moving data electronically,” says Deb Casurella, the president of Independent Data Management, which owns MyAgData.

Casurella says her firm, which does not share data with anyone other than their producer customers, stands ready to work with USDA to simplify the acreage reporting process. In addition, MyAgData could potentially replace some of the outdated USDA systems.

Scuse admits that his agency “still has a ways to go” but says there has been considerable progress since USDA started three years ago with the acreage crop reporting streamlining initiative.

Step one was to make sure the agencies that identify parcels of land to agree to use a common identifier, Scuse explains. Step two was to try and consolidate the crop reporting dates because there were so many different dates between FSA and RMA. For example, one county in FL had 27 different dates, he adds. The next step was to improve USDA's commodity tables.

“We needed to a hard look at all of the different ways that corn or beans or any commodity was measured and consolidate those to simplify the reporting process,” Scuse says.

After those steps, USDA started to work with AgGateway, the umbrella organization for all of the equipment manufacturers, to develop standards for the data that can work across more than one line of equipment.

Scuse says that in April, MIDAS reached a milestone by securing all of the records from their system that had been designed and built back in the 1980s.

“We had to put all of those records in a stable environment. That was the most critical part,” he told Agri-Pulse. “The second part - which we are currently working on - enables us to make payments and things of that nature. That will be released later this fall.”

In addition, Scuse says he has a team coming to Washington this week to look at how officials are currently doing work in county offices. “Do we need to do things the same way today as we've done for the last 30 or 40 years?” he asks.

Scuse says there have been so many changes in technology in the last few years since MIDAS was launched, including tools like the iPhone, iPad and precision technology, that it's important for his staff “to take a good look at our FSA offices and find ways that we can accommodate our producers needs and the technology that they are currently using today.”

Still, lawmakers expect USDA to make improvements as quickly as possible. The 2014 farm bill requires that USDA's Acreage Crop Reporting and Streamlining Initiative (ACRSI) be implemented and that producers or their agents can either electronically or conventionally share common land unit data, related farm level data, and other information. If the Secretary notifies the Agriculture Committees by September 30, 2014 that substantial progress has been made in implementing ACRSI, the agency will be eligible for $10 million. An additional $10 million is also provided to FSA if by September 30, 2015 the Secretary reports to the Agriculture Committees that these requirements have been fully implemented.

Scuse said the streamlined reporting will not be available this fall at county offices and was reluctant to say when he believes the ACRSI will be fully implemented, but expressed confidence that progress is being made.

“It's something we are going to be working very hard to achieve because of the funding tied to the farm bill on this,” he added. 

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