rnassqs is a package to access the QuickStats API from national agricultural statistics service (NASS) at the USDA. There are at least two good reasons to do this:

  1. Reproducibility. downloading the data via an R script creates a trail that you can revisit later to see exactly what you downloaded. It also makes it much easier for people seeking to replicate your results to ensure they have the same data that you do.

  2. DRY. Don’t repeat yourself. Downloading data via API makes it easier to download new data as it is released, and to fetch multiple variables, geographies, or time frames without having to manually click through the QuickStats tool for each data request.

In the beginning it can be more confusing, and potentially take more time, but as you become familiar with the variables and calls of the rnassqs package and the QuickStats database, you’ll be able to quickly and easily download new data.

API Information

The USDA-NASS Quick Stats API has a graphic interface here: https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov. Information on the query parameters is found at https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/api#param_define.

A quick example

First, obtain an API key from the ‘Quick Stats’ service: https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/api. Then we can make a query. Here we request the number of farm operators by operation acreage in Oregon in 2012.

library(rnassqs)

# Specify the query parameters
params <- list(
  commodity_desc = "OPERATORS",
  domain_desc = "AREA OPERATED"
  agg_level_desc = "STATE",
  state_alpha = "OR",
  year = 2012
)

# Check that our record request is under the 50,000 limit
nassqs_record_count(params)

# Get the data
d <- nassqs(params)

Parameters need not be specified in a list and need not be capitalized. The following is equivalent

# Get the data specifying each parameter as a separate argument to the 
# function `rnassqs`
d <- nassqs(commodity_desc = "operators", 
            domain_desc = "area operated",
            agg_level_desc = "state",
            state_alpha = "or",
            year = 2012)

Convenience functions

A growing list of convenience functions makes querying simpler. For example, you can retrieve yields and acres with

# Set parameters
params <- list(
  commodity_desc = "APPLES",
  domaincat_desc = "NOT SPECIFIED"
  agg_level_desc = "STATE",
  state_alpha = "OR",
  year = 2012
)

# Yields and Acres
yields <- nassqs_yields(params)
acres <- nassqs_acres(params)

Detailed usage

Step 1: Authentication

the QuickStats API requires authentication. You can get an API Key here. Once you have a key, you can use it in any of the following ways:

Add it to your .Renviron file

In your home directory create or edit the .Renviron file, and add NASSQS_TOKEN = <your api key> to the file. R sessions will have the variable set automatically, and rnassqs will detect this when querying data. If you use Rstudio, you can also use usethis::edit_r_environ to open your .Renviron file and add the key. This will create a new system environmental variable when you start a new R session. You can also set the environmental variable directly with Sys.setenv(NASSQS_TOKEN = <your api key>.

Put it in a file

You can add a file to your project directory and ignore it via .gitignore if you’re using github. The advantage of this method is that you don’t have to think about the API key for the rest of the project, but you have to repeat this process for every new project, and you risk forgetting to add it to .gitignore. Once the api key is in a file, you can use it like this:

# Load the api key
api_key <- readLines("<file name with api key>")
nassqs_auth(key = api_key)

Add it interactively

If you don’t want to add the API key to a file or store it in your .Renviron, you can enter it in the console in a session. This is less easy because you have to enter (or copy-paste) the key each time you begin an R session. In addition, you won’t be able to automate running your script, since it will stop and ask you to provide an api key.

# Checks if the api key is set and prints it. 
# If it is not set, asks the user to set the value in the console.
nassqs_auth()

Step 2: Building Queries

The QuickStats API offers a bewildering array of fields on which to query. rnassqs tries to help navigate query building with some functions that return parameter names and valid values for those parameters. nassqs_params() provides the parameter names, which at the time of this writing are

library(rnassqs)

# returns a list of fields that you can query
nassqs_params()
#>  [1] "agg_level_desc"        "asd_code"             
#>  [3] "asd_desc"              "begin_code"           
#>  [5] "class_desc"            "commodity_desc"       
#>  [7] "congr_district_code"   "country_code"         
#>  [9] "country_name"          "county_ansi"          
#> [11] "county_code"           "county_name"          
#> [13] "CV"                    "domaincat_desc"       
#> [15] "domain_desc"           "end_code"             
#> [17] "freq_desc"             "group_desc"           
#> [19] "load_time"             "location_desc"        
#> [21] "prodn_practice_desc"   "reference_period_desc"
#> [23] "region_desc"           "sector_desc"          
#> [25] "short_desc"            "state_alpha"          
#> [27] "state_ansi"            "state_name"           
#> [29] "state_fips_code"       "statisticcat_desc"    
#> [31] "source_desc"           "unit_desc"            
#> [33] "util_practice_desc"    "Value"                
#> [35] "watershed_code"        "watershed_desc"       
#> [37] "week_ending"           "year"                 
#> [39] "zip_5"                 "format"

Including parameter names in nassqs_params will return a description of the parameter(s) in question:

nassqs_params("agg_level_desc", "source_desc")
#> [1] "agg_level_desc: Geographical level of data. Often 'county', 'state', or 'national', but can include other levels as well"
#> [2] "source_desc: Data source. Either 'CENSUS' or 'SURVEY'"

Documentation on all of the parameters is available at https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/api#param_define.

A list of the valid values for a given field is available via nassqs_param_values(param = <parameter name>). For example,

nassqs_param_values(param = 'source_desc')

returns a list of valid values for the source_desc parameter.

Building a query often involves some trial and error. One way of developing the query is to use the QuickStats web interface. This is often the fastest method and provides quick feedback on the subset of values for a given query. Alternatively, you can query values for each field as above and iteratively build your query. The query in the end takes the form of a list of parameters that looks like

params <- list(commodity_desc = "CORN", year__GE = 2012, state_alpha = "VA")

Querying a range of values

Most queries will probably be for specific values such as year = 2012, but you may also want to query ranges of values. For those queries, append one of the following to the field you’d like to modify:

  • __LE: less than or equal
  • __LT: less than
  • __GE: greater than or equal
  • __GT: greater than
  • __LIKE: like
  • __NOT_LIKE: not like
  • __NE: not equal

In the above parameter list, year__GE is the year field with the __GE modifier attached to it. The returned data includes all records with year greater than or equal to 2012.

Querying multiple values

Multiple values can be queried at once by including them in a simple list with c(). For example, if you’d like data from both Washington and Oregon, you can write state_alpha = c('WA', 'OR').

Query limits

The API only returns queries that return 50,000 or less records, so it’s a good idea to check that before running a query. Do do so, you can use nassqs_record_count(). Combined with an assert from the assertthat package, you can ensure that your queries are valid before attempting to access the data:

# Check that the number of returned records will be less than 50000
params <- list(commodity_desc = "CORN", year__GE = 2012, state_alpha = "VA")
records <- nassqs_record_count(params)
assertthat::assert_that(as.integer(records$count) <= 50000)

Step 3: Running Queries

Once you’ve built a query, running it is easy:

# Run a query given a set of parameters and an API key
nassqs(params = params, key = api_key)

Lists of parameters and dealing with large queries

The ability of rnassqs to iterate over lists of parameters is especially helpful. In some cases you may wish to collect many different sets of data, and in others your queries may be larger than the API restriction of 50,000 records. In both cases iterating over a list of parameters is helpful.

Iterating to reduce individual query size

Generally the best way to deal with large queries is to make multiple queries subset by year if possible, and by geography if not. Some care is needed if subsetting by geography. Due to suppression of data, the sum of all counties in a state will not necessarily equal the state value. Moreover, some data is collected only at specific geographies. It is best to start by iterating over years, so that if you want say all county cash rents on irrigated land for every year since they became available in 2008, you can iterate by doing the following:

# Define the list of parameters to use repeatedly
param_list <- list(
  sector_desc = "ECONOMICS",
  commodity_desc = "RENT",
  prodn_practice_desc = "IRRIGATED",
  class_desc = "CASH, CROPLAND",
  agg_level_desc = "COUNTY",
  domaincat_desc = "NOT SPECIFIED")

# Iterate through each year to get data  
data_list <- lapply(2008:2017, function(yr) {
  params <- param_list
  params[['year']] <- yr
  nassqs(params)
})

# Using dplyr to bind the data list
library(dplyr)
df <- rbind_list(data_list)

# Using data.table to bind the data list
library(data.table)
dt <- rbindlist(data_list)

Subsetting by geography works similarly, looping over the geography variable (usually state_alpha or county_code or the like) in lapply.

Iterating over lists of parameters

Similar to above, at times it is helpful to make multiple queries and bind the data into a single data.frame. For example, you may want to collect the many different categories of acres for every Agricultural Census since 1997, which you can do with something like

# First define a base parameter list to modify for each new query
base_params <- list(
  source_desc = "CENSUS",
  sector_desc = "ECONOMICS",
  commodity_desc = "AG LAND",
  agg_level_desc = "COUNTY",
  unit_desc = "ACRES",
  statisticcat_desc = "AREA",
  domain_desc = "TOTAL",
  domaincat_desc = "NOT SPECIFIED",
  year_GE = 1997
)

# List of parameters that vary for each query
param_list <- list(
  ag_land_other = list(
    class_desc = "(EXCL CROPLAND & PASTURELAND & WOODLAND)"), 
  ag_land_irr = list(
    prodn_practice_desc = "IRRIGATED",
    class_desc = "ALL CLASSES"),
  ag_woodland = list(
    class_desc = "WOODLAND"),
  ag_pastureland = list(
    class_desc = "PASTURELAND, (EXCL CROPLAND & WOODLAND)"),
  ag_cropland = list(
    class_desc = "CROPLAND"),
  ag_cropland_excl_harvested = list(
    class_desc = "CROPLAND, (EXCL HARVESTED & PASTURED)"),
  ag_cropland_harvested = list(
    class_desc = "CROPLAND, HARVESTED",
    prodn_practice_desc = "ALL PRODUCTION PRACTICES"),
  ag_cropland_harvested_irr = list(
    class_desc = "CROPLAND, HARVESTED",
    prodn_practice_desc = "IRRIGATED")
  )
  
  # Iterate through different variable queries
  data_list <- lapply(param_list, function(var_params) {
    # Create the new parameter list and append the query items that vary
    # by query
    params <- base_params
    for(n in names(var_params)) { 
      params[[n]] <- var_params[[n]]
    }
    nassqs(params)
  })
  
  # Then rbind_list() or rbindlist() as above

Under the hood

nassqs is a wrapper around the nassqs_GET function, which uses httr::GET to make an HTTP GET request to the Quick Stats API. If you need to access the underlying request object generated by the GET call, you can use nassqs_GET to return the request object. The rnassqs package also has a nassqs_parse function that will process a request object into a data.frame, list, or raw text. nassqs does handles both together, but you can replicate that functionality with low-level functions as follows:

# Make a HTTP GET request and parse into a data.frame with separate
# function calls. The below is equivalent to 
# 'nassqs(params, key = api_key)'
request <- nassqs_GET(params = params, key = api_key)
parsed <- nassqs_parse(request, as = 'data.frame')