Faces in the Field: Dee Webb, agricultural statistician
We have a diverse workforce here at the NCDA&CS that focuses on consumer protection, food safety, agricultural marketing, accuracy of weights and measures, plant conservation, livestock protection … and more. Through our Faces in the Field series, we’ll talk to employees and provide a behind-the-scenes look at what they do to serve North Carolina.
Dee Webb is the state statistician with the North Carolina Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS. The agency is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and collects and analyzes a wide variety of statistical data about agriculture. The state Field Office operates in partnership with NCDA&CS under a series of agreements dating back to 1919.
Webb is a federal employee, but her office is located in the state Agriculture Building in Raleigh. She has worked for USDA for 23 years, 17 of those in the North Carolina office (from 1997-2003 she worked at NASS headquarters in Washington, D.C.). She grew up on a farm in Johnston County where her family raised tobacco, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and soybeans. She earned bachelor’s degrees in agricultural economics and agricultural business management from N.C. State University.
We recently talked to Webb about USDA’s undertaking of a significant restructuring and consolidation of NASS offices across the country. Below is a Q&A with her about this initiative.
USDA is restructuring the National Agricultural Statistics Service. What’s happening?
In short, NASS is almost finished moving from a field office structure with 46 offices to a regional structure with 12 regional field offices and a smaller field office in each of the states where there was already an office. We expect to complete the realignment of the field offices as well as headquarters by the end of the year.
Each state will have a state statistician and a survey coordinator. In North Carolina, I am the state statistician and Kathy Neas is the survey coordinator. The title of state director has changed to state statistician, but the responsibilities remain largely the same. I’m still the contact for anyone seeking agricultural statistics work or information in North Carolina. My role is to provide the services North Carolina agricultural agencies, organizations and producers have come to expect. As survey coordinator, Kathy will coordinate the training and survey work of field enumerators who visit farmers to collect the data that is the basis of the statistics we publish.
The Eastern Mountain Field Office in Louisville, Ky., will provide statistical analysis, report preparation, special state statistical products and services in a centralized, streamlined environment for North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. This arrangement will make the agency more efficient and cost-effective in the long run. Local field enumerators will continue to collect data directly from farmers/producers.
North Carolina is a little different from the other NASS state offices in that we are a print mail center as well. We are fortunate to have this resource to provide printed materials including statistical reports, exhibit banners, marketing materials and much more for both NASS and the Department of Agriculture. This arrangement is very efficient and cost-effective as well.
We really appreciate the partnership and assistance the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has offered during the transition. Their support has helped make the changes as smooth as possible.
What prompted USDA to undertake this restructuring?
The past few years have been interesting and challenging times for the federal government, especially related to the economy and our budgets. With the economic downturn and the availability of new technologies, NASS saw the necessity and the opportunity to find ways to do our work more efficiently.
How will these changes affect North Carolina farmers who contribute information to statistical surveys?
While we hope our farmers don’t notice a big change, there are a couple of things they may notice. Phone enumeration will be centralized so calls to collect their data may come from a different state. Those who respond to surveys by mail may notice that the forms are not going back to our office in North Carolina, but a regional office instead. North Carolina agriculture producers who provide information, and users of statistics, will benefit from long-term efficiencies of more centralized data collection and statistical processes, enhanced research, NASS-experienced staff and industry relationships. Our work remains the same — to collect and analyze data, and produce independent, accurate, timely and useful statistical reports that are available to everyone.
I would like to mention that we’ve recently finished collecting data for the 2012 Census of Agriculture and want to thank all North Carolina producers who sent in their information. The census asked for a lot of information, plus all of our normally scheduled surveys continue. I and all of my counterparts know we are asking for a good bit of time and effort with these surveys. We want to remind producers how important the information is to agriculture and to themselves for marketing, business decisions and local decision-making. All of the resulting reports and information are free, and individual information is kept confidential.
How will the changes affect people who use the information collected by NASS?
The people who use NASS statistics really should not notice any change. Our regional structure maintains quality agricultural statistics and industry relationships through the local expertise and knowledge of NASS employees, a presence in each state and improved data systems.
North Carolina has a long history of partnering with USDA NASS. Tell us a little about that history.
NASS has maintained a Memorandum of Understanding with NCDA&CS for many, many years. The purpose of the agreement is to strengthen the cooperation between the two groups in a collaborative effort to collect, analyze and publish agricultural statistics data. Both parties agree jointly to explore and coordinate activities of mutual interest. The MOU promotes economy and efficiency of operations, avoids duplication of effort and minimizes response burden.
Congress is working on a new farm bill. Will passage of a new farm bill affect NASS operations in North Carolina?
Of course we are watching this issue because it is the single most important legislation affecting USDA and the people who benefit from department programs. Some of NASS’ work is funded through the farm bill but we are not involved directly. As a federal statistical agency, NASS is not a political agency. In fact, none of our employees, including our administrator, are appointed politically. This is important to ensure real and perceived independence from political influence.