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Farm-market reporting cuts seen as 'a blessing in disguise'

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 5:52 p.m.

LANCASTER — When the state Department of Agriculture eliminated farm-market reporting, it seemed like bad news for David Wert.

It meant Wert, the department's livestock-market division supervisor, and three colleagues would lose their jobs.

Erasing their function when the state's fiscal year began in July saved the state $350,000. But for livestock buyers and sellers, and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the budget cut didn't erase the need for the data.

So Wert created his own firm, Ag Market News, to gather and distribute the same farm-market information — and much more.

“In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise,” Wert said of the state's action.

Several things make Ag Market News unique. For starters, Ag Market News has the support of the USDA, which until now always received farm-market data from states or colleges.

“This is the first time we've stepped out to use a private firm,” said Levi Geyer, a supervisor in the USDA's agricultural marketing service.

But with Pennsylvania and many other states dropping their farm-market reporting, although the USDA and agricultural community still need it, the USDA was willing to take a new tack.

The USDA has accredited Ag Market News — essentially vouching for the accuracy of its data — based on random audits of its data collection and based on its testing and training of the Ag Market News employees.

The second major change is the funding of the farm-market activity, which consists of grading livestock and reporting the prices that various types of livestock fetch at the markets. Instead of taxpayers footing the bill, as when the state Department of Agriculture provided the service, now the markets themselves pay fees to Ag Market News for the service.

One thing hasn't changed, though. Wert and his staff — another full-time employee and two subcontractors — are traveling to the same markets they visited in their state-employee days.

Wert, for instance, still is logging 4,000 to 4,500 miles a month in his F150 pickup, crisscrossing the commonwealth.

Locally, they attend the New Holland and Vintage sales. They also go to the Dewart, Greencastle, Middleburg, Lebanon Valley, Waynesburg and Parkesburg markets.

At the markets, they get data on an array of sales — feeder pigs, hogs, calves, dairy, feeder cattle, lambs and goats. They also collect data on grain and hay prices from across Pennsylvania.

They send all that information to newspapers, including this one, as they did in their state days. But instead of also posting it on the state Department of Agriculture website, it goes on theirs, agmarketnews.com. And they're posting extra categories of data.

They've added prices from produce auctions and small-animal markets, and information about each sales barn (location, phone number and upcoming sales dates).

So far, the website has been well-received, Wert said. It has drawn 800 unique visitors and 80,000 hits, enough traffic that he hopes to attract advertising to the site.

The appeal will be strengthened in the future, he said, when the website begins including information about independent truckers who'll haul livestock.

Wert sees Ag Market News diversifying further.

Since he's no longer a state employee, he's considering taking his market-reporting and grading services to other states whose governments have dropped those functions. And he has bought a portable hay and forage analyzer that gives nutritional profiles in 60 seconds, providing data that farmers or feed-lot operators can use to balance rations.

Wert, 56, of Lewisburg, has spent his entire career in agriculture. He worked at a feed mill and in the livestock business before spending nearly 14 years with the state.

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