WASHINGTON, March 18, 2015 – How is USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service getting its arms around Big Data, its ever expanding collection of electronic market information?

AMS calls it MARS, short for Market Analysis Reporting Services, a new software platform the agency is building, largely to integrate farm and food market reports – now about 1,500 a week – that the agency developed since the 1990s as separate pods of information. They're all accessible on its website but often aren't integrated, linked to related data, or in a format for building tables, charts or maps. For example, try getting the spectrum of prices of the same product at farm, wholesale and retail levels.

With the recent launch of its new Market News portal that creates a single gateway to all its market info, users can search for both current and historical price and movement information 24 hours a day.

But Joseph Gaynor, a MARS architect for AMS, says the new portal is only a stopgap measure. “It did get our data into a single location for the end-user,” he says, but the MARS project, expected to be fully on board by the end of 2016, will integrate how market-related data is stored, managed and analyzed, including data on crop and livestock production, exports, weather and more from other agencies.

By early fall, Gaynor expects, people reporting and using the data, including farmers, will see a greatly expanded and vastly friendlier AMS market database for agricultural products. The new system will be akin to what USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) did several years ago with production-related farm data: Its “Quick Stats” provides a single platform to access and manipulate that sort of farm information.

AMS' initiative is its run at the swelling mountain of data it handles on farm product pricing, grading, shipping, stock levels and market analysis reports. It follows the 1999 launch of the Market Information Organization of the Americas, which coordinates agricultural market information of the Western Hemisphere. Now, 33 countries participate in the MIOA, and AMS' volume of international data is mounting steadily.

As the new platform is built, AMS will also turn the tables, so to speak, and co-opt more and more producers and processors to directly supply daily price quotes and other electronic market data, maximizing the timeliness and specificity and, thus, the value of the information. Gaynor says the new system will also mean data can more readily be gathered and manipulated – letting an AMS market reporter or farmer, for example, easily build graphs, maps, etc., or even revise the data sources or selections of data to build individualized reports.

Officials at NASS say they're pressing in a similar direction. So far, NASS gets up to 20 percent of its data for crop and livestock production reports by direct electronic transmissions from producers. It's more efficient than paying enumerators to collect the info, and the agency expects a continuing shift to “self-administered data collecting.” What's more, NASS wants to secure funding soon to survey local food networks, picking up the direct farm-to-consumer enterprises that are now largely missed in USDA surveying.

At AMS, Terry Long, Market News director for fruits and vegetables, says MARS will greatly expand the breadth of weekly retail price listings – presently gathered from 29,000 U.S. food stores – because of the relative ease of gathering such data. Already, about 250 organic items are found in the retail price listings, and the agency wants to expand on those quotes plus those specifying locally sourced foods.

One new driver of price data collection will be “crowd sourcing,” a system in which consumers become market reporters as well. (Think of GasBuddy.com, where customers both report local fuel prices and use the reports to shop for cheap fuel.) It means farmers selling at farmers' markets, or their customers, will report prices for the benefit of local consumers with smart phones.

Meanwhile, American Farm Bureau Federation economist Bob Young, busy at using USDA data himself, notes that Big Data will soar into food market channels from the farm gate as well. He expects the collections of electronic production and market data that farmers are amassing for their own operations will mean quicker and more detailed information for consumers. That data, for example, will accommodate food merchants and their customers who like to make “lifestyle choices” – GMO-free, pesticide-free, free-range, etc. – when buying groceries, he says.


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