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Mail Call: Be Sure to Fill Out the 2017 Census of Agriculture!

December 15, 2017

Photo credit: USDA.

Last year, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) sent out a call to farmers to participate in the 2017 Census of Agriculture. To those farmers and ranchers who signed up to receive the census – thank you for making sure your business is counted and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has current and accurate data! Missed the signup? Don’t worry, you can still be counted in the next Census, just click here to signup and you’ll be on the list for the 2022 Census. Not sure what the Census of Agriculture is or why you should participate? In this article we provide some key information on the 2017 Census and NSAC’s Deputy Policy Director Juli Obudzinski discusses why it’s so important that all producers – particularly beginning, organic, socially disadvantaged, and other historically under-represented producers – participate.

What is the Census of Agriculture?

The Census is a complete count of all the farms and ranches in the U.S., which aggregates data on land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures and many other demographics. The Census is administered by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and is conducted every five years.

The information collected by NASS is vital not only for USDA, but also for food and farm advocates, policymakers, and for farmers because the data collected during the Census directly impacts decisions on critical farm programs and policies. This information is also crucial for farmers and the agricultural economy because it provides a clear picture of market and production trends over time. Participation is especially important by organic, direct-market, urban, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers — all of whom have been historically undercounted in the Census.

Late last year, the 2017 Census was sent via postal mail and by email to all producers who signed up to participate earlier in the year (or previously filled out a Census in prior years). Respondents have the choice to complete their Census via mail or online, though USDA suggests that participants use the online Census portal whenever possible, as the online questionnaire includes several time-saving features such as automatic calculators. Responses were originally due to NASS by February 5, 2018, but NASS has extended the deadline through the Spring 2018.

Important Update, March, 2018 —  In order to get an accurate representation of American agriculture – of all farmers and ranchers across the country – NASS will continue to accept completed census questionnaires through spring 2018. NASS has heard that some producers need extra time due to planting, bad weather, or gathering necessary end-of-year documents. All operations are important and every response matters.

NASS is committed to giving producers every opportunity to be represented in these widely-used data. Federal law mandates that everyone who received the 2017 Census of Agriculture questionnaire complete it and return it even if not currently farming. NASS will follow-up via mailings, phone calls, and farm visits with producers who have not yet responded. To avoid these additional contacts, farmers and ranchers are encouraged to complete their census either online at www.agcounts.usda.gov or by mail as soon as possible. For more information about the 2017 Census of Agriculture, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov. For questions about or assistance filling out the census, producers can call toll-free (888) 424-7828.

Once all responses have been collected, it will take the USDA roughly one year to process and organize the results. Complete 2017 Census data is expected to be released in February 2019.

Click here to watch a short video about the Census of Agriculture from USDA.

An Interview with NSAC’s Deputy Policy Director and NASS Advisory Board Member, Juli Obudzinski

What is your role on the NASS Agricultural Statistics Advisory Board, and why is it important?

I am currently a member of the Advisory Committee on Agricultural Statistics, a federally-chartered advisory board which provides recommendations to USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) in order to ensure that there is reliable and accurate data collection, reporting, and analysis. A big part of what we’ve been discussing on the board recently is how we can better communicate the importance of participation in the Census to farmers and the value of the data it produces. Accurate data is as critical for farmers as it is for USDA and Congress, so we really need to maximize participation each time.

That being said, we’re also hearing about “survey fatigue” from many farmers who are feeling over-surveyed lately from the myriad of organizations, businesses, and federal agencies that want their input and information. Our role on the Board, in this case, is to really underscore the need for participation in the Census. It only comes around once every five years, just like the farm bill, so it plays a big part in setting the tone for policy making for a long period of time. That’s also why we care so much about the Census at NSAC.

Why is participation in the Census important?

If we want USDA and Congress to support the programs and policies that are crucial for a more sustainable food and agriculture system, we need to point to reliable data to prove that there is a need and/or benefit.

Without data, it is easy for certain farms and farmer groups to be overlooked and underserved by USDA. An accurate Census count sends a clear signal to USDA and to Congress about where resources are needed and what potential benefits or impacts those resources might have. While NASS is the sole data collection agency, many other agencies within USDA (like the Economic Research Service) rely on the data to help them conduct economic policy analysis or tailor their programs and outreach.

Census data is also extremely useful for the farmers themselves. The Census can help producers to better understand the state of the market in their particular county, state, or region, and can give them information that they can use to improve their businesses. We have several farmers who sit on the NASS Advisory Board, and their insights are really useful when we think about what data we’re collecting and the value it provides to the farmers themselves.

What information should folks be on the lookout for in the 2017 Census?

One thing that is on people’s minds right now is whether or not the average age of American farmers is going to continue to rise in the next Census. The average age has been steadily rising over the past several decades, and we already know that we aren’t doing enough to usher in the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Knowing where the average age has moved to in this Census will give us a good idea as to whether or not we are making progress in bringing younger generations into agriculture. In addition, we’re hoping to see more detailed information on the specific role that beginning farmers play in multi-generational operations.

I’m sure many folks will also be interested to see how the organic and local and regional food markets have grown over the last five years, and whether or not we have made any progress in stemming farm consolidation.

One thing we do need to always be aware of when reviewing the census data is the context in which they were taken. The last census, conducted in 2012, was taken during a drought year. In 2017, NASS will be conducting the Census during a time when commodity prices are especially low and have been low for several years. We can expect to see the impact of that in many ways; perhaps, for example, we may see a rise in organic or diversified agriculture as a response to the depressed prices for commodities.

Stay tuned!

Categories: General Interest

2 responses to “Mail Call: Be Sure to Fill Out the 2017 Census of Agriculture!”

  1. Liz Townsend says:

    Please support small sustainable farms.


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