For the first time, farmers responding to the Census of Agriculture will be asked to share information about their land-use practices, Internet access and crops grown for production of renewable energy. Those details and others will help policymakers develop and fund programs benefiting producers and rural communities throughout the U.S., says Renee Picanso, director of USDA’s Census and Survey Division.
"There’s strength in numbers, so the more farmers that are counted, the better for the agricultural industry," Picanso says. The agricultural industry uses data to select locations for new processing plants and storage facilities, evaluate transportation needs and more.
The Census is issued every five years and will be mailed to farmers this year in mid-December. It can also be completed online. The form must be returned via the Internet form or mail by Feb. 4.
Also new to this year’s Census are questions asking affected farmers why they keep horses, a category requested by the equine industry, and about food that is packaged on farms for resale. While participation in the 24-page Census survey is mandated by federal law, most farmers will only have to complete several pages and should be able to do so in about 30 minutes, Picanso says.
USDA is hopeful there will be a good response rate among farmers because historically, participation improves in a drought year. That’s because they want the government to know that their production was down, Picanso says. It’s also true that the drought didn’t affect every section of the U.S. Individual data will be kept confidential, and county-level data won’t be published if it would disclose the identity of a producer.
Both top producers and small-scale farmers should participate in the Census, Picanso says. The USDA uses demographic information to help small-scale farmers and underserved populations in the agricultural community such as African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women.
After Feb. 4, Census officials will follow up with farmers who haven’t responded by making phone calls and visiting them in person. Those who have recently left farming should still complete the form to the best of their ability before returning it, Picanso says.
Data collection will be completed in May. Analysis will be conducted during the summer, and tables will be prepared for publication during the fall. Census results will be published in early 2014. That timeline is important to ensuring data are complete and accurate, Picanso says, and it doesn’t inhibit USDA representatives, legislators and others from making decisions that can help farmers and rural America.
The Census of Agriculture first happened in 1840 as part of the regular Census under the direction of the U.S. Commerce Bureau. It was distributed to 26 states and the District of Columbia, and the section devoted to agriculture was fairly small. It became a standalone survey in the 1950s and became a responsibility of USDA starting in 1997.
Today, the survey is conducted in all 50 states and outlying territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It comprises 3,000 counties.
More information about the 2012 Census of Agriculture is available by going to agcensus.usda.gov.