This chapter examines contests over cotton yield forecasting that began during the American Civil War, when the US Department of Agriculture began to produce agricultural statistics in an attempt to stabilize commodity markets and protect farmers from market-manipulating speculators. It describes how the government’s crop reporting system, which relied on statisticians and local volunteer crop correspondents, calculated figures on current acreage and crop condition, which speculators converted into yield forecasts. The chapter focuses on the volatile cotton economy of the 1890s, when the USDA’s crop reports circulated alongside the competing yield estimates of controversial British cotton forecaster Henry M. Neill and Georgia’s Cotton Growers’ Protective Association. The chapter demonstrates that the multiplicity of competing cotton yield forecasts resulted in more, not less, uncertainty in early-twentieth-century cotton markets, and ensuing debates over objectivity and accuracy in agricultural statistics led government officials to redefine crop estimating as a statistically uncertain endeavor.
Keywords: cotton yield forecasting, crop reports, estimates, agricultural statistics, objectivity, markets, US Department of Agriculture, Henry M. Neill, Cotton Growers' Protective Association