Meet Hubert Hamer: NASS Administrator
Amstat News invited Hubert Hamer—administrator of the National Agricultural Statistics Service—to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about him and the agency he leads.
A graduate of Tennessee State University, Hubert Hamer once served as director of the Statistics Division of the USDA, which produces and releases more than 400 national statistical reports each year covering the agency’s crops, livestock, economic, demographic, environmental, and census programs. He also served as executive director of the NASS Agricultural Statistics Board and executive director of the Advisory Committee on Agriculture Statistics.
What about this position appealed to you?
It has always been a goal of mine to provide leadership for the organization I grew up in. I’ve always loved and understood the importance of our mission to provide timely, accurate, and useful statistics in service to agriculture. I think it is rare that one has the opportunity to build a career in something meaningful that one really cares about. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to do just that by combining agriculture and statistics. By working my way up through the ranks at NASS in the Washington, DC, headquarters and in offices around the country, I’ve learned from my colleagues, supervisors, and mentors in NASS and USDA. I’m honored to be able to apply that knowledge and experience to lead this agency.
Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Service and our commitment to U.S. agriculture are what drive us at NASS. To that end, I have three areas of focus:
- Relationships with survey respondents
- NASS employees
- Advancing our use of technology to ensure data quality and usability
In my first months as administrator, I have made it a priority to get out and meet with staff, stakeholders, and respondents across the country. My purpose for these meetings is to strengthen the dialog and relationships to remain relevant and provide the outstanding products and services the agriculture community and others expect from us.
In turning to our staff, my goal is to have an environment in which our outstanding employees can do their best work. This includes a safe and inclusive workplace with diversity of people and ideas; where vigorous, respectful debate is encouraged; and where employees can continue to harness their talent and work ethic to fulfill both their career goals and our agency mission. My expectation is that everyone who interacts with NASS staff finds us to be helpful, pleasant, and professional.
In the area of technology, we have amazing tools to help us that I couldn’t imagine using even just a few years ago. I think George Washington, one of the earliest compilers of agricultural data, and those who later produced the first census of agriculture in 1840 would be astounded. Like other statistical organizations, we are working hard to efficiently and effectively harness geospatial tools, a wide range of available data, the internet, the cloud, data visualization, and many other constantly evolving assets to enhance data collection, analysis, and dissemination. To me, technology is our future.
What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) for NASS?
Probably the three greatest challenges for us today are reflected in my priorities. I believe our greatest challenges are keeping up with expanding data needs, reversing the trend of declining response rates that many survey-based organizations are experiencing, and bringing along a next generation of statisticians.
Starting with the topic of meeting data needs … with interests as varied as research and education, community-based planning, farm-related marketing, commodity markets, and the Farm Bill, we are constantly looking forward. For example, in the past few years, we’ve expanded our portfolio of publicly available data to include topics as diverse as grain crushing, flour milling, local foods, organic production, and the cost of pollination. We’ve also created a host of new types of data products. On obtaining sufficient response to surveys, I see this as a real challenge and an opportunity. We are reinvigorating our relationships with farm organizations to see if they can help us reach out to the farmers and ranchers from whom we request information. This has been a very positive effort on many levels.
Finally, one of the great things about NASS is our sense of family. Like me, many come out of college and stay here for their whole career. We have a large number of people who have been in the agency for decades and are starting to retire. We have a renewed focus on recruiting young people, training them, and keeping them so we maintain our knowledge and top-notch skill base.
What kind of support from the statistical community do you look for?
The statistical community has always been an incredible resource for sharing experiences, technologies, and best practices, as well as for looking ahead for new developments. We are also a great support for each other, which I always find valuable. A couple of areas I expect we’ll be focusing on together are to understand and address the reasons for declining response rates, educate decision makers and stakeholders across disciplines about the value of data as a public resource, and collaborate on and use new technologies that enhance our data-collection and dissemination practices, so we all remain relevant.
Prior to your tenure, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishment of the agency?
This may sound routine, but maintaining our schedule of releasing some 450 reports a year on time and without errors. It is truly a testament to our staff’s commitment, especially while keeping up with new technologies and learning to collect data on new topics from farmers, ranchers, and agricultural businesses they may never have worked with before.
And along those lines, of course, it is a major achievement to conduct a successful Census of Agriculture every five years and create a portfolio of new customer-centric data products. We’ve been working since the release of the 2012 Census of Agriculture to get ready for the 2017 data collection, which will begin late November with a mail out to 3.1 million farmers and ranchers. We are really excited about a new online survey data-collection tool that we expect to use the first time for the census. We are testing it now and have great hopes that respondents will find it to be a convenient and flexible way to fill out the Census of Agriculture.