Canada may use satellites, not farmers, to measure crop size

Statistics Canada may turn to an eye in the sky to capture production data instead of phoning farmers during harvest. photo: thinkstock

Statistics Canada may scrap one of its annual farmer surveys on crop yields in favour of a report that uses satellite data to estimate production.

StatsCan, the national statistical agency, said the satellite data was producing increasingly similar results to its September farmer survey on yields of wheat, canola and other crops, and the change would help meet cost-cutting goals.

“We’ve been comparing (satellite data) over the last couple of years and they’re getting quite close to what we release in September estimates,” said Yves Gilbert, head of StatsCan’s field crop-reporting unit.

The agency’s Crop Condition Assessment Program has typically released data on vegetation conditions on a weekly basis late in the growing season.

Axing the September farmer survey would be the latest in a series of changes to how the Canadian government calculates data for the agricultural sector in Canada, which is the world’s biggest canola grower and No. 6 wheat producer.

It would also save $50,000 to $75,000 per year, and relieve farmers of the hassle of dealing with StatsCan phone calls during harvest, Gilbert said.

But Derek Squair, whose company Agri-Trend Marketing helps farmers decide when and where to sell their crops, said switching to a less trusted source of information on supplies will make it harder for farmers to market their crops.

“To the producer, it should be a concern. That data is pretty important,” he said.

StatsCan is currently conducting this year’s September survey and will release the data in its Oct. 4 yield and production report.

The agency would drop the September survey starting next year, but would keep two other crop production reports that are based on farmer surveys, Gilbert said.

StatsCan has already cut some lower-profile agriculture-related reports on hogs and fruits and vegetables.

The government said last year that it planned to cut Statistics Canada’s budget by seven per cent as of 2014-15 as it seeks to balance the federal budget. Chief statistician Wayne Smith said the cutbacks meant the volume and detail of information available would be “sharply reduced.”

The government foresees a federal deficit of $18.7 billion in the 2013-14 fiscal year, dropping to $6.6 billion next year, and a return to a small surplus the year after that.

The grain industry is also adjusting to changes to another widely watched government source of crop information — the Grain Statistics Weekly publication from the Canadian Grain Commission.

Some grain analysts expressed concern when the non-profit Canadian Ports Clearance Association wound down last year, marking the end of its regular freight reports. They said loss of these reports made grain movement less transparent.

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