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Enumerators Get Info on Cotton Crop

September 5, 2000

ADEL, Ga. (AP) _ Vernon Cain and Verlyn Denney wade through 6-foot cotton and abide triple-digit temperatures to collect information that can sway commodity prices and alter farm policies.

From July to December they visit secret sites in cotton fields to gather information for the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Cain supervises four enumerators, including Denney, who check 24 sites in 28 south Georgia counties. Other teams survey the remainder of Georgia’s cotton-producing counties.

Almost everything about their work is confidential.

They don’t blab about the farms they visit and, especially, about their findings. At a certain point in the growing season, they also become cotton pickers, stripping the lint from the bolls for moisture analysis and weighing it at a USDA laboratory in Jackson, Miss. Growers get the cotton back so they can sell it.

Ultimately, the cotton information is sent to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which has been compiling statistics since 1863.

Reports prepared at the state and national level are vital to the industry. Lawmakers and government officials use them to shape farm policies. Speculators peruse them for investment ideas, and farmers base some of their planting decisions on them.

Without official information, the industry would have to rely on estimates from private companies and conglomerates, said Bill Givan, a University of Georgia agricultural economist.

``You wouldn’t know who to believe,″ he said. ``Sometimes these government reports are off. They may not be exactly accurate, but they are unbiased. They do the best job they can.″

Cotton is considered a ``speculative commodity,″ so the USDA takes extra precautions to protect those statistics, said Chris Messer, the deputy state statistician in Athens.

``For everything we do, we have pledged confidentiality,″ she said. ``We take that seriously. People are escorted in our office.″

In its August report, the statistics service said Georgia farmers are expected to harvest 1.3 million acres of cotton, the same as last year, with yields of 620 pounds per acre, 41 pounds more than last year. Production is estimated at 1.68 million bales, 113,000 more than last year.

Cane and Denney said they enjoy the seasonal, part-time work.

``We believe we’re doing the farmer a favor,″ said Denney, 75, a retired cattleman and farmer. ``It’s a nationwide thing, an unbiased estimate.″

``If it weren’t for our outfit, everybody would be in the dark,″ said Cane, 66.

Georgia’s 14 enumerators are checking 115 locations this year. Using tape and colored stakes, they mark off a 10-foot section of two rows, returning each month to count the bolls and stalks. When the bolls open, they pick the cotton. They also do a more in-depth survey on a separate 3-foot section of a row.

``They have a great respect for farmers,″ Messer said. ``A lot of these people have farm backgrounds. ... They aren’t making judgments. They’re just collecting information.″

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