Circuit

Farmers, space outsourcing, summer travel and waste.

Farmer in the dell

Are there 2 million farms in the United States? It all depends on your definition of a farm. The Agriculture Department officially defines a farm as any business that sells $1,000 or more in agricultural products per year.

By that definition, the nation's 2 million farms averaged a net cash farm income of $19,032 in 2002. Both figures come from the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the results of which are now available on the Web, said Ronald Bosecker, administrator for the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

For the 2002 census, statistics agency officials collected data from farmers on 1,000 items, including computer usage. They found only 39 percent, or 827,215 farmers, used computers for farm business — not an encouraging number for USDA officials who want to use the Internet to deliver services.

However, a separate 2003 farm computer usage survey revealed that 48 percent of U.S. farms had Internet access. And among farms producing $250,000 or more a year in agricultural products, 72 percent had access to the Internet. It's not just your family farm.

Outsourcing outer space

We've heard of offshore outsourcing, but outer space outsourcing? Is this the next big thing?

It is if NASA follows the recommendations of the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy. In a recent report, commission members said the "commercialization of space should become the primary focus" of NASA's vision for the future.

The report calls on NASA officials to rely almost exclusively on private companies to launch spacecraft payloads into low orbit around Earth. The only exception would be for manned missions, which would still be managed by the government because of their inherent risk.

Stop and go

As Americans prepare for their summer vacations, officials at the Transportation Security Administration are hoping they also will make a brief visit to the agency's Web site to find out what the obstacles are to carefree travel. The site has tips for packing smartly and is designed to reduce the confusion over added security screening at the nation's airports.

John Lenihan, TSA's federal security director at Washington Dulles International Airport, said screeners process 20,000 pieces of luggage and 30,000 passengers daily. To keep things moving, many passengers are surrendering items they realize are contraband, such as kabob skewers, fireworks and even torque wrenches, as they approach metal detectors. To make things easier, Lenihan advises: "We'll process you more efficiently if you remove your shoes."

Waste not

A new General Accounting Office report states that Veterans Health Administration officials need to tighten control over use of purchase cards and convenience checks. It seems the unchecked spending has resulted in cases of improper and wasteful purchases — worth more than $300,000.

Among the violations detailed, GAO officials found more than 3,000 movie gift certificates worth more than $30,000 for employee rewards and three cases of beer totaling $38. But that's not all. There were purchases of Baltimore Orioles tickets, harbor cruises, and new and used instruments from Daddy's Junky Music. And we forgot to mention fine dining for more than $2,000 at the Brace Elephant, a Baltimore restaurant with "chairs upholstered in rich rose share space where marble fireplaces, intricately designed teak, crystal chandeliers and Tiffany skylights to set the mood," according to the restaurant's Web site.

We ask this simple question: If civil servants don't police themselves, who will? n

Got a tip? Send it to circuit@fcw.com.

NEXT STORY: NASA tests satellite software

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