Last week a farmer told me he received his Census of Agriculture questionnaire from USDA but hasn’t decided whether or not to fill it out and send it back. His hesitation is mainly rooted in his belief he doesn’t want the government to know any more about his farming operation than they already have on file.
I told him he should fill it out accurately and send it in before the Feb. 5 deadline. The Census of Ag gathers data to help farmers show the rest of the nation the value and importance of agriculture. That data can help influence decisions that will shape the future of American agriculture for years to come. USDA conducts the census only once every five years and keeps the data confidential.
“By responding to the Census of Ag, farmers are helping themselves, their community and all of U.S. agriculture,” says Greg Thessen, director of USDA’s National Ag Statistics Service’s Upper Midwest office in Des Moines.
By law, if you receive the Census of Ag form, you must fill it out and return it to USDA. This requirement is an attempt to get as many returns as possible to ensure a reliable statistical database. Whether NASS would use this authorization to collect a report, I don’t know. But there is good reason to complete your census and send it in anyway. This same law requires NASS to keep all information confidential, to use the data only for statistical purposes.
Information collected useful to agriculture
The Census of Ag provides the only source of comprehensive and impartial ag data for every county in the U.S. The survey results show developing trends, as well as the needs throughout agriculture. The information collected is used by many people, including farmers, ranchers, industry, research and the government. The information is helpful and can be used to advocate for agriculture and help shape government policy.
Thessen assures farmers “all responses are secure and confidential.” To make the process even easier, this year the census has an improved online questionnaire. The census gathers data on land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenses. For America’s farmers and ranchers, this census is their voice, their future and their opportunity. To learn more, visit agcensus.usda.gov/About_the_Census.
Data will help shape agriculture policy
The Census of Ag began in 1840 and is conducted to get a complete picture of U.S. agriculture. Farm operations that produced and sold at least $1,000 of ag products in 2017 are included. This definition of a farm is spelled out in the enabling legislation, and Congress debates it every so often. They always come back to the $1,000 level so the data series remains consistent over the years.
The last census helped quantify several important trends in agriculture, such as number of farms selling directly to consumers and retailers, a 144% increase in farms using renewable energy and the upward march of farm expenses — a trend that has continued even as crop prices have fallen, causing a historical decline in net farm income.
Of course, census information can be misused by professional critics and anti-agriculture organizations. These groups often take advantage of the census’ low $1,000 sales threshold USDA uses to define a farmer, generating comparisons that make full-time family farms seem larger than they are.
Of course, $1,000 in sales doesn’t translate to $1,000 profit. It’s simply a measure of revenue that doesn’t consider expenses. For example, if a weekend gardener spent $5,000 caring for his plot throughout the year, had a bumper crop of cucumbers and sold them for $1,000 to a vendor at a local farmers market, he’d have a $4,000 loss, and he would be defined as a farmer.
Granted, the small-dollar farming operations make up very little of the total income or expense side of the data series, but they are a fairly sizable part of the total number of operations. Data users often look most intently at farms with over $50,000 per year in sales. However, that reduces the number of operations significantly. Or you may find reason to say sales of more than $10,000 or $20,000, instead of $1,000, should be the cutoff; so you go around and around in the debate as to what is a farm. It all comes down to the definition Congress has in the legislation.
NASS will release results of the 2017 census in February 2019. It takes awhile for USDA to gather sort, process and interpret this massive amount of data it is collecting. The need to update and gain a better understanding of census data is particularly evident as Congress debates the 2018 Farm Bill amid a slumping farm economy. And although some people will likely misuse the census data to attack USDA farm financial safety net programs, the Census of Ag still enables farm advocates to quantify the need for strong farm policies in these difficult times.