Hall learns from market report lockup in Washington, D.C.

Darrick Hall
Pete Temple
Express Sports/Ag Editor

     Darrick Hall learned what it’s like to be among the first to hear one of the USDA’s monthly Crop Production Reports during a trip to Washington, D.C. in September.

     Hall, the Jones County Farm Bureau voting delegate, was part of a trip to Washington, D.C. that included the lockup and the September Crop Production Report.

     Because the USDA is concerned about anyone having early access to sensitive information that would provide an advantage in trading on the commodities market, it holds a lockup every month to ensure everyone gets the information at the same time.

     Hall joined 11 other Iowa Farm Bureau Federation representatives on the trip, and went through an extensive security process in order to be part of the lockup, which takes place in the USDA headquarters.

     “It’s a really neat older building,” Hall said. “We go into a room, fill out a form (detailing) what personal items we have. We surrender our phones, they put them in a locker, and they keep the key.”

     Overall there were about 50 people in the lockup room, many of them standing.

     “At the specified time, Sonny Perdue (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) comes in,” Hall said. “He is getting the report for the very first time before it’s released, and he signs his name to it.”

     Perdue then reads the report to those in the room, which Hall said takes about an hour.

     “You’re the first people to hear it,” Hall said. “From there they will have an official press release.”

     The report is compiled by National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) employees who work with states each month to compile estimates. They report to the USDA building in Washington at midnight the night before the report is released, and compile the information.

     “There are eight to 10 people in that conferencing board,” Hall said. “They get locked in without their phones, they get encrypted emails from all these sources, and they start sifting through all the information to come up with the numbers.”

     Hall said that many years ago, the lockup occurred in a room that had windows to the outside, but those inside would raise or lower blinds to indicate the rise or fall of corn prices.

     “If the blinds were halfway down, corn was down,” Hall said. “They were signaling to other people.”

     Now, the lockup is done in a room in the center of the building, with its own generator and a master switch that controls internet access.

     The lockup area is physically secured, with an officer stationed at each entry point; the doors are locked and alarms set. The windows are covered with shades that are secured with tamper-resistant seals, and all telephone and internet connections are switched off.

     Hall, 41, said he was surprised to learn the information on the markets comes from surveys, phone calls, aerial imaging, and very little from computer models. But he understands why it is done that way.

     “You have to be very scientific and deliberate in your process,” he said. “You can’t change your process for one month when you’ve been doing it this way for the better part of 100 years, or it skews the data. So you have to keep doing it same way, using your scientific method to get to those numbers.”

     He said he enjoyed being in the room when Perdue read the report.

     “It’s pretty neat, for about 45 minutes, knowing something that somebody else doesn’t know,” he said. “You just can’t act on it, because you don’t have your phone or anything like that.”

     The September report included a summary detailing how spring rains and flooding delayed or prevented plantings, leading to corn and soybean yield declines in 2019.

     While farmers understand that the reports are estimates, Hall said the USDA does its best.

     “A lot of people work on that information,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Well, this is what we think it should be.’ They’re trying to get as close to the (correct) numbers as they possibly can with the resources they have.”

     Once the report is publicly released, the lockup ends and those in the room can retrieve their phones and leave.

     There were other parts to the three-day trip for Hall. There was a lockup briefing on the night before the event. After the lockup, Farm Bureau members got the opportunity to talk with NASS employees regarding market facilitation payments, trade, and more.

     On the third day, those on the trip visited the Japanese Embassy, meeting with a deputy ambassador.

     “We talked about trade and how important it was to both countries,” Hall said.

     Hall has been to Washington before on Farm Bureau trips, but mostly to discuss policy with legislators.

     “I’ve always enjoyed the trips I’ve taken to Washington, D.C.; it’s one of the coolest cities we have,” he said. “I have an interest in the markets, and I thought it was a good trip.”

     Being in Washington is always eye-opening for Hall.

     “To me it’s easy to see how intoxicating it is for senators, for congressmen,” he said. “It’s where stuff happens, and it affects us every day. That’s a lot of power.

     “And there really is a bubble effect. They lose touch very easily with what happens out here. It’s good for us to visit them, but I think sometimes it would be really good for them to visit us.”

     Hall and his wife Holly farm south of Anamosa and west of Monticello.



Subscriber Login