Fielding Facts

January 6, 2013 08:44 PM
Fielding Facts

Census of Agriculture helps guide policy

The 2012 Census of Agriculture features several firsts—among them, new questions about land-use practices, Internet access and crops grown for production of renewable energy. These  details and others will help policymakers develop and fund programs benefiting producers and rural communities, 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 industry uses the data to help select locations for new processing plants and storage facilities, evaluate transportation needs and more.

The Census is issued every five years. While participation in the survey is mandated by federal law, most farmers will have to complete only some of the 24 pages and should be able to do so in about 30 minutes, Picanso says. The survey must be returned by Feb. 4.

In a drought year,
farmers want the government to know
their production
was down

USDA is hopeful there will be a good response rate—historically, participation improves in a drought year. That’s because farmers want the government to know that their production was down, Picanso says. Individual data will be kept confidential, and county-level data won’t be published if it would disclose the identity of a producer.

Both large- and small-acreage producers are required to participate in the Census, Picanso says.  USDA uses demographic information to assist 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, Picanso says.

Census results will be released in early 2014. The timeline is long in order to ensure that the data is accurate and complete, Picanso notes.

A 172-year history. The Census of Agriculture first happened in 1840 as part of the decennial Census (conducted every 10 years) under the direction of the U.S. Secretary of State, says Doug Hurt, head of the history department at Purdue University.

That first Census is "generally considered to be suggestive but not really accurate, because this is the first time that farmers had federal agents on their property asking very personal questions," Hurt says.

Throughout years of changes in the questions and distribution methods, Hurt says, the survey  remains valuable in helping government officials understand trends and developments in the agriculture industry.

The federal government "needs to know about the people it serves, and the numbers can tell a lot," Hurt says. The survey also has value for historians who study the evolution of the agricultural landscape. The two most recent versions have recorded hobby farms, boosting the number of total operations in the U.S. (The Census defines a farm as any unit that produces at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products for market annually.) But those figures mask an even larger trend.

Between 1900 and 1990, the number of people living on farms shrank from 29.8 million to 4.5 million, Hurt says. Similarly, the total number of farms in operation dwindled from 5.7 million to 2.1 million. Meanwhile, consolidation and other activity resulted in average farm size growth from 147 acres to 461 acres.

For more information about the 2012 Census of Agriculture, click on the "Census" tab at

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