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USDA will mostly "go dark" in case of federal shutdown

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department will shut off its gusher of statistical reports in the event of a federal government shutdown, leaving traders and food producers in the dark about most activities in the world's largest farm exporter.

But inspections of meat are considered among essential services that will continue even if most workers are idled.

If the shutdown lasts more than two or three days, USDA may be forced to delay the release of its monthly crop estimates, due on October 11, which often cause swings worth billions of dollars in the price of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton.

"We are going to miss the October crop report, if they shut down too long," said Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co. "If you don't have the October crop report, that's really the big one."

USDA also reports large export sales - 100,000 tons or more of corn, soybeans or wheat to a single destination in one day - that often move markets. On September 18 the agency reported 1.93 million tons of soybeans to China, the fifth-largest daily sale ever.

Also suspended would be dozens of lesser-known reports that provide a daily or weekly foundation for tracking crops, livestock and the farm sector - from cattle auctions in Amarillo, Texas, to dry edible bean prices in Wyoming.

The department's public face, the usda.gov Website, will "go dark" and be linked to an informational page in the event of a shutdown, allowing no access to USDA data banks, a spokeswoman said on Monday.

"Timely updates to the Website will stop, thus valuable electronic reports and material will not be available to agricultural community and the agriculture and consumer publics," said an outline of USDA's plans.

As one example, USDA planned to report on Monday on its last-gasp efforts to whittle down a mammoth sugar surplus. Processors could default on half a million tons of sugar loans backed by USDA on Tuesday but the forfeitures would not be reported until the government was back at work.

A portion of USDA's 100,000 employees would remain on the job. Meat and poultry inspectors, the subject of a funding fight after automatic budget cuts endangered their work early this year, are designated as essential personnel.

Without them, the meatpacking industry would have to shut down because, by law, it cannot operate without USDA inspectors to assure safety.

Grain inspectors generally would also remain at work, in their case because budgets are funded by user fees.

USDA's economics and statistical wing said "market news reports, NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service) statistics and other agricultural economic and statistical reports and projections will be discontinued."

"NASS will not issue any reports on days the government is shut down. We would assess the timing of any affected report releases after the government shutdown ends," a USDA spokesman said.

The Economic Research Service, which provides analysis and forecasts, would be shuttered and its public Website would be taken offline, said USDA. Agricultural research stations also would close, and reports from USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service attaches around the world would be suspended.

The closely watched U.S. crop report, issued in tandem with projections of U.S. and global supply and demand estimates, is released a few days after USDA personnel complete surveys of growers and field inspections.

(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny and Ken Wills)

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