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U.S. shutdown sends grain traders, farmers hunting for data

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CHICAGO (Reuters) – When the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that a slew of key farm reports would not be released on Friday due to the partial government shutdown, the phones at crop forecaster Gro Intelligence blew up.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seen in Washington, DC, U.S., March 18, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

The USDA was set to release its views on the projected size of U.S. soybean stockpiles, among other data, following a record-large domestic harvest and a trade war with China that has slowed U.S. exports.

Commodity traders, economists, grain merchants and farmers are anxious for crop updates as they work to project their financial balance sheets and make spring planting decisions.

“It’s been crazy busy,” said Sara Menker, chief executive of New York-based Gro Intelligence.

The shutdown, now in its third week, has rippled across the already struggling U.S. farm economy ahead of President Donald Trump’s planned address at the American Farm Bureau conference in Louisiana on Monday. Federal loan and farm aid applications have also been delayed.

To fill the void on data, traders and farmers are relying on private crop forecasters, satellite imagery firms and brokerages offering analyses on trade and supplies. Some have been scouring Twitter for tidbits on shifting weather patterns and rumors of grain exports, but say it is difficult to replace the USDA.

“We’re just doing the best we can, looking for as much information as is available,” said Brian Basting, economist for Illinois-based broker Advance Trading, which provides customers its own harvest and crop supply estimates.

Dan Henebry, an Illinois corn and soy farmer, said the absence of USDA data was difficult.

“You delay all these reports and the market has no idea where to go, other than trade guesses,” Henebry said.

HUNT FOR NUMBERS

Gro Intelligence has been offering free access to its data platform since Dec. 27, and released worldwide supply-demand crop forecasts on Friday.

The company’s estimates for the U.S. 2018-2019 corn crop yield were 177.4 bushels per acre, below both USDA’s last forecast and lower than the average of estimates in a Reuters survey. Gro pegged the U.S. 2018-2019 soybean yield at 50.6 bushels per acre, also below USDA and below the range of Reuters’ survey.

The company will keep its platform open for the duration of the shutdown, Menker said.

So far, Menker said, the site has signed up executives from the top 10 global agribusiness companies and financial institutions with credit exposure to U.S. agriculture.

Data firm Mercaris has gained new subscribers too, as it has become the only source for organic commodity prices since the halt in USDA reports, sales director Alex Heilman said. The Maryland-based company is making an additional pricing report available to users for free until the federal agency reopens.

“Everybody still needs this information for creating contracts, new product lines, planting acres,” Heilman said.

Farmers Business Network (FBN), which collects harvest data from 7,000 U.S. farmers, was set to release crop yield estimates on Friday to members. The data is not as comprehensive as the USDA’s report would have been, though, said Kevin McNew, FBN’s chief economist.

“At the end of the day, we still need a benchmark,” McNew said. “For better or worse, USDA is the best benchmark we have.”

Trading volume in Chicago Board of Trade grain futures typically jumps on the day in mid-January when the USDA releases its major reports. But without the reports on Friday, volume fell in the most actively traded corn and soy contracts, and rose less in wheat futures than it typically does when USDA issues its data, according to preliminary data from CBOT owner CME Group Inc.

While crops are not growing in North America during the winter season, traders are still looking for updated information from South America and other parts of the world where soy and other crops are growing.

An increase in private companies using government-collected satellite images to track farmed fields in recent years helps shine a light on global crop conditions even while government agencies are dark. The government’s Landsat satellites continue to collect images of the earth and other data.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Private companies such as New Mexico-based crop forecaster Descartes Labs can still access the open-sourced data and analyze it. The public can normally see those images on the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, but it is not being updated during the shutdown, according to a notice on the site.

And all technology can be problematic, said Steve Truitt, government program manager for Descartes.

Data occasionally has shown up late during the shutdown, or not arrived, Truitt said. The USDA and Interior Department staffers who Descartes usually calls either cannot be reached or are working without pay, he said, leading to awkward conversations.

Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen and Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis

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Ottawa education workers still teaching special-ed students at schools want safety checks

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Some Ottawa educators say they are concerned about the safety of classrooms that remain open in schools for special-education students.

Ontario elementary and secondary students have been sent home to study virtually because of the dangers posed by rising rates of COVID-19. However, special-education classes are still operating at many bricks-and-mortar schools.

The special-education classes include students with physical and developmental disabilities, autism and behaviour problems. Some don’t wear masks and require close physical care.

Two unions representing teachers and educational assistants at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board have sent letters to Ottawa Public Health expressing their concerns.

It’s urgent that public health officials inspect classrooms to assess the safety of the special-ed classes, said a letter from the Ottawa branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which also represents the educational assistants who work with special-needs children.

“In the absence of reasons based on medical evidence to keep specialized systems classes open, we are unsure as to the safety of staff and students in these programs,” said the letter signed by president Stephanie Kirkey and other union executives.

The letter said staff agreed that students in specialized classes had difficulty with remote education and benefited most from in-person instruction.

“Our members care deeply about the students they work with and are not only concerned about their own health and safety, but also about that of their students, as they are often unable to abide by COVID safety protocols that include masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene, thus making it more likely that they could transmit the virus to one another,” the letter said.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has 1,286 elementary and secondary students in special-education classes attending in person at 87 schools, said spokesperson Darcy Knoll.

While final numbers were not available, Knoll said the board believed a large number of the special-education students were back in class on Friday at schools.

In-person classes for other elementary and secondary students are scheduled to resume Jan. 25.

The school boards provide PPE for educators in special-education classes as required, including surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

Several educators interviewed said they don’t understand why it has been deemed unsafe for students in mainstream classes to attend class, but not special-ed students.

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Ottawa sets record of 210 new COVID-19 cases following lag in data reporting

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Ottawa has now broken its daily record for new COVID-19 cases twice in 2021, with 210 new cases added on Friday amid a lag in data reports from earlier in the week.

The nation’s capital has now seen 10,960 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 977 active cases of the virus in Ottawa, a jump of more than 100 over Thursday’s figures.

One additional person has died in relation to COVID-19 in Ottawa, raising the city’s death toll in the pandemic to 395.

The record-setting case count comes a day after Ottawa reported a relatively low increase of 68 cases. Ontario’s COVID-19 system had meanwhile reported 164 new cases on Thursday.

OPH said Thursday that due to a large number of case reports coming in late Wednesday, the local system did not account for a large portion of cases. The health unit said it expects the discrepancy to be filled in the subsequent days.

Taken together, Thursday and Friday’s reports add 278 cases to Ottawa’s total, a daily average of 139 cases.

The new single-day record surpasses a benchmark set this past Sunday, when the city recorded 184 new cases.

Ontario also reported a new record of 4,249 cases on Friday, with roughly 450 of those cases added due to a lag in reporting in Toronto.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continues to climb in Ottawa. OPH’s dashboard shows there are currently 24 people in hospital with COVID-19, seven of whom are in the intensive care unit.

Three new coronavirus outbreaks were added to OPH’s dashboard on Friday. One outbreak affects a local shelter where one resident has tested positive for the virus, while the other two are traced to workplaces and private settings in the community.

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Ottawa family dealing with mould issue in apartment grateful for support

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OTTAWA — An Ottawa family, who has been dealing with mould in their south Ottawa apartment, is grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“I would like to say big very mighty, big thank you to everyone,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

Adeniyi lives with her three sons in a South Keys apartment. Her son Desmond turned to social media on Sunday to seek help for the family, saying they’ve been dealing with mould in their unit and it has taken too long to fix.

“I see my mom go through a struggle everyday; with three kids, it’s not easy,” says 16-year-old Desmond Adeniyi.

He setup a GoFundMe page to help the family raise money to move out. After gaining online attention and the story, which originally aired CTV News Ottawa on Tuesday, they have been able to raise over $30,000.

“Yes! I was surprised, a big surprise!” says Nofisat Adeniyi, “We are free from the mess that we’ve been going through.”

The family was so touched, they decided to pay it forward and donated $5,000 to another family in need, “A lady my son told me about,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

The recipient wants to remain anonymous, but when she found out from Adeniyi, “She was crying, she has three kids; I remember when I was, I can feel what she’s feeling – because I was once in those shoes.”

CTV News Ottawa did reach out to the property management company for an update on the mould. In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for COGIR Realty wrote:

“We respect the privacy of our residents and are unable to disclose any specific information regarding any of our residents. We can, however, let you know that we are working with the residents and are making every effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible,” said Cogir Real Estate

The giving did not stop at just cash donations. “When I saw the segment, the thing that struck me the most was how easily the situation can be resolved,” says mould removal expert Charlie Leduc with Mold Busters in Ottawa.

Leduc is not involved in the case, but appeared in the original story, and after seeing the mould on TV wanted to help.

“This isn’t something that we typically do, but given the circumstance and given the fact that this has gone on way too long, our company is willing to go in and do this work for free,” said Leduc.

The Adeniyi family may now have some options, and are grateful to the community for the support.

“Yes, It’s great news — you can see me smiling,” says Nofisat.

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