REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — After nearly a half-century of poring over numbers and percentages for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio’s ag statistics chief is stepping down.
Jim Ramey, who has spent the past 46 years working to collect, organize and disseminate farm production data, bid his last day on the job June 30.
For some, a career working with numbers and statistics would be cumbersome, even overwhelming. But for Ramey, working with farm production data was his passion.
It began as a kid growing up on his parents’ grain and cattle farm in Colorado. In 1964, shortly after he married, he got his first job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a student trainee in Wyoming.
“I was looking for a summer job and, as a newly married guy, I needed a little income,” he said.
Little did he know, that summer job would lead to his lifetime career.
Ramey finished his bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University and became a full-time employee in what was then called the Statistical Reporting Service — the equivalent of the modern-day National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time,” he said. “But once I got into it, I got very interested in working with it and collecting the information.
“I began to see the importance of what we were doing for agriculture. It didn’t take long to get me addicted to it.”
And the addiction would persist, taking him to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington D.C. and, finally in 1988, he took over as director of the Ohio field office for NASS. The agency works to gather numbers on Ohio’s crops and livestock.
Ramey, who lives with his wife, Sandy, in Dublin, has seen the agency undergo four name changes and multiple upgrades to equipment and gathering techniques. When he started, a large part of the job was working with electronic counters and programing the early computers to organize data.
Today, the agency can get reliable crop data with the aid of satellites, which provide direct inputs into computers. Planes and helicopters are used in some states, where it’s less cloudy.
But reports made by individual farmers are still essential. Ramey receives many reports through return mail, and some are done with the farmers entering their data online.
Ramey said the concept of collecting farm data goes back to the formation of USDA in the 1860s. The numbers were used strategically, he said, to help the nation during war and secure its needs.
Today, the numbers help farmers and agribusinesses make business plans and know how much of the different commodities are available. NASS does not make crop recommendations or suggestions based on the data; it only reports its findings.
“The value of the information is to level the playing field for all the players,” he said. “The information that comes out of the agricultural statistics gives ‘everybody’ a fair chance at it.”
Reports include weekly crop progress, planting projections, harvest numbers and much more.
The NASS staff can easily pull up records from 10, 20, 30, or even a 100 years ago. But the most recent data usually is most important, because yields and production are changing so rapidly.
Still, some data will always be significant, like the statistics for precipitation. In a recent meeting at the Ohio Department of Agriculture with state and federal officials, Ramey was able to look at records from previous decades to determine this year’s record-breaking rainfall, and some of the statistics as to how fast Ohio farmers could catch up with planting, if the weather finally improved.
Fred Dailey, who served as state agriculture director from 1991-2007, said Ramey “was a dedicated federal employee and his contributions to Ohio’s agriculture are immeasurable.”
Dailey worked with Ramey to re-locate the USDA statistics office from Columbus, to the Ohio Department of Agriculture in Reynoldsburg. The move helped make the statistics service more accessible to the ODA.
“The interaction has been great, not just the week by week, but also in times of disaster when we needed to get information quickly to the USDA or governor,” Dailey said.
Ramey attended fairs and other agriculture events, and did well to represent his office, Dailey said.
Even today, he likes meeting and working with different people. But some health issues with his wife, and the reality he’s been working for close to five decades, tell him it’s time to move on.
“We’ve decided maybe it’s time to just kick back and enjoy what we have left in life,” he said.
Wayne Matthews, who works in the same office and has just a few months less time than Ramey, will become acting chief. Some restructuring of the office also is in store, as USDA weighs options for the future, Ramey said.
Ramey has a hard time thinking of anything he disliked about his years with USDA. But one thing that’s always been a challenge is getting farmers to respond to the surveys.
If they don’t provide their numbers, it makes reporting the statistics difficult.
He jokingly recalled a few people who were reluctant to report their data as farmers, but when they later joined state boards and needed the data, their perspective quickly changed.
“If you had a reluctant reporter (producer), if you could get him elected to a board where he needed to use the data, most of the time it would make a difference,” he said.
Ramey said the office will change in years to come, as it undergoes some restructuring at the federal level. But he hopes it will maintain the same level of service, and continue to do a better job at reflecting new producers and the changing rural landscape.
“Agriculture is important in Ohio and important in this part of the country,” he said.