As with most government survey operations, as ARMS has matured, it has settled into a comfortable repetition of tried and true formats and collection rounds that have been periodically revised. Some significant strategic decisions have been put in place over the years, such as the closer alignment of ARMS with the 5-year Census of Agriculture. However, this has occurred largely without the discipline of a structured, long-term planning process.
In the larger picture, the managers of ARMS have other venues for enhancing the use of the data for econometric policy-relevant analyses. One such venue occurs periodically with the reauthorization of the farm bill. Although ARMS data, as they are, are very useful for evaluating policies implemented by this bill, the cycle of reauthorization affords a once-each-five-year opportunity for ARMS to reach out and preemptively to develop a plan for collecting farm bill–related data in a policy evaluation framework, with an emphasis on specific policies of interest. For instance, adapting a pre- and postsurvey component for ARMS in conjunction with policy implementation or working with administrators to evaluate a randomized trial of some farm programs could dramatically enhance the value of ARMS as a policy analysis tool.
For this and other reasons, it makes sense for ARMS to operate with a five-year plan in order to fit into the five-year cycle of the Census of Agriculture. Within each cycle, there is reason to hold the basic survey relatively constant, with changes permitted on an annual basis to add extra modules outside the core survey questionnaires or to enumerate follow-on surveys within the ARMS sampling frame. Thus, for example, inserting a question into the core set of questions should not be permitted within a given five-year cycle, except under extreme circumstances. More significant changes designed to maintain the relevance of ARMS in a changing farming environment could be made once each five years, with provision made for bridging the old and new times series in a manner that would enhance the value of the time series data to users. This would have a number of benefits, in addition to stabilizing the time series for data items of interest. For one thing, it would diminish the problems of recoding data items from year to year, which has had a confusing effect on users of ARMS microdata.
Recommendation 3.4: NASS and ERS should commit resources to developing a five-year plan tied to the Census of Agriculture for ARMS content, coverage, and methodology. The agencies should develop measures to control changes during the five-year period to minimize disruptions to the time series of the core content in ARMS.