Resolve to Be Counted

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

The Christmas cards and packages have all been delivered for another year, but farmers across the country can still expect something important to show up in their mailboxes this month, if they haven’t received it already.

And that piece of mail could turn out to be more valuable than any holiday gift.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture is under way, and every farmer in the country is required to participate — for good reason.

Filling out surveys can be tedious, especially when they require lots of information, such as production practices, income and expenditures, land use and ownership data, operator characteristics and details on hired labor, poultry and livestock inventory, and chemical use to name a few.

Sometimes we don’t like to fill out such surveys because the questions seem too personal. Or maybe they simply take too much time.

Sometimes, filling out an online survey can at least get us entered into a drawing for some type of prize, but that’s not the case here.

More often than not, we fail to see how filling out a questionnaire can offer any direct benefit to us. Quite honestly, it often doesn’t. But in the case of the Census of Agriculture, it is time well spent.

The Census of Agriculture had its roots in the 1820 decennial population census, when U.S. marshals began asking households if they were engaged in agriculture.

In 1840, marshals began using separate schedules to collect more detailed agricultural data. The agriculture census continued to be conducted during the same year as the decennial census of population until 1950.

Between 1954 and 1974, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted the census of agriculture for years ending in “4” and “9.” The Census Bureau and the USDA decided to conduct the census for years ending in “2” and “7” after the 1978 census.

So why participate?

As a complete count of farms and ranches, and the people who operate them, in every county in the United States, the census paints a detailed picture of agriculture on the local, state and national level.

Lawmakers use census data to shape agricultural polices and programs, and to allocate block grant dollars to states, as well as funding for conservation and beginning farmer programs. So farmers hoping to secure some of that funding will want to ensure that it is distributed fairly.

Companies use the data to determine where to locate facilities that serve agricultural producers.

Communities rely on census information to plan services for rural residents.

Extension uses the information to shape future programs.

In other words, the more accurate the information, the better farmers are served.

Testimonials on the USDA website point to several other practical and very direct uses for the census.

A corn, soybean and hog producer from Indiana said he used the census data to compare his herd numbers, acreage, technology use and management practices with others in his community and state.

A Pennsylvania farmer recounted how he used census data on his county’s dairy industry to persuade officials to forgo a cost-saving plan that would have eliminated rural plow service from the snow removal budget and, in the process, hindered tanker trucks from picking up milk at those farms.

On a broader scale, those in the organic industry credit the 2007 Census of Agriculture with prompting a follow-up survey concentrating solely on organic production, the results of which led to new initiatives and opportunities for organic farmers.

But there’s another reason to fill out that census form, and that’s to offer an accurate picture of agriculture to those who are not involved in the industry.

Although we all need agriculture to survive, the general public tends to have little interest in farming until something happens that directly affects them, whether it’s a pink slime controversy, a listeria outbreak or the threat of $6 per gallon milk.

The census is yet another tool to educate the public about everything agricultural, from how farming has changed over the years to how it affects the local economy.

If we’ve learned one thing in 2012, it’s that both the general public and lawmakers would do well to have a better understanding of U.S. agriculture. Farmers need to do their part to make that happen.

Thanks to the Farm Bill debacle, we may have stumbled and crawled across the finish line of 2012, but that simply makes it all the more important that farmers’ voices are heard.

As we embark on a new year, let’s resolve to stand up, brush ourselves off — and be counted.

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