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For the tenure of the Trump administration, the media has been treated as the enemy; the enemy of the administration, and enemy of the people. 

While such conflicts are legendary on the television network evening news and in morning newspaper headlines, conflict between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the agriculture media has been absent. Until now. 

Last week the USDA distributed a notice that restricts media access to speculative USDA reports disguised as an effort to protect the public from routine media operations. It could have been taken from the playbook of the White House Office of Communications. And for whatever reason the new rule is being implemented, it will have a 180-degree consequence. Instead of protecting the public, it will harm the public.

At issue are speculative reports created monthly by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which contain information that can move commodity markets. Anyone who has seen the movie “Trading Places” knows about the desirability of the information carried by Mr. Beeks, although in reality the information is collected, analyzed and released from a section of the USDA which is physically and electronically locked out of public access. That includes elevators, telephones, computers and anything that would allow someone on the outside of the lockup to gain early access to the information.

After being in the lockup numerous times, one has great respect for the security of the information.  Monthly reports might be 25 to 30 pages long, with thousands of numbers. The Annual Report for the 2017 crop year was 127 pages with tens of thousands of numbers, all of which have value to the commodity traders in Chicago and around the world.

Since 1905, when the USDA ratcheted down the security of the information, members of the media have been allowed in the lockup. In early days, reporters were allowed to make a telephone connection with a newspaper wire service; USDA officials would distribute the report, and at the moment of the release, reporters would race from behind a white line on the floor to their phone and begin reading numbers for the wire services to distribute. But reports were smaller in those days.

In recent years, ag media have been allowed in the lockup with various tour groups, getting early briefings and having time to assemble a report for release when the electronic locks were removed from phones and computer lines. And it may take a significant amount of time to pour over the extensive data to file a thorough report. Been there, done that.

The USDA has decided that gives an undue advantage to high frequency computer traders, and the ag media will no longer have access to the information prior to the noon release of the data. Oh, and the “cost of maintaining a media work area” was also thrown in as a reason for tossing the media out of the lock up.

Whatever the political reasoning may have been was ill-conceived because the opposite will happen.  The computer traders can download the report into their computer and within a fraction of a second commodity trades will begin, well before the public has access to the data and the chance to manage any necessary risk created by a USDA report.  When media reports are filed, the market will have had a long time to trade.

Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene. In addition to his weekly column, you can view his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.

 

 

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