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2012 Agricultural Census under way this month

Dec 1st, 2012 | Category: News

Stats to be released in February 2013

by Dana E. Neuts

This month, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) will begin collecting data from more than 39,000 farms in the state of Washington for the national Agricultural Census. Conducted every five years, the census gathers data about livestock inventory, crop production, value of sales related to income, demographic data and more. The data is then analyzed and used as a tool by government agencies for a variety of purposes including forming policies and programs, eliciting support for rural communities and allocating funding. For the purpose of the census, a farm is defined as any place that raises crops or livestock earning more than $1,000 in gross revenue annually.

According to Dave Knopf, director for the Washington field office of NASS in Olympia, this census is the only uniform source of data on U.S. agriculture and is, therefore, an important tool in identifying agricultural trends like the loss of farmland.

Graph courtesy of USDA

“It’s a chance for small farms to tell their story. It’s one of the few times we count small farms,” Knopf explained. “We need credible information to make sound decisions and this census is one of those rich data sources.”

Knopf’s staff of 16 will begin collecting census data for Washington farms in late December, hiring temporary help if needed. One of the challenges his staff faces is getting everyone to understand the importance of the census and to actually complete and return the 24-page form. Knopf estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Washington farmers fail to complete the census for various reasons including lack of time and resources.

“We hope we get all the farms, but we never do,” Knopf said. “There are a number of other people that don’t want to be involved in an accounting of agriculture. They choose not to report.”

Ellen Gray, executive director for the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, is a proponent of the census, but says it does not accurately portray small farms or diversified farms that grow a variety of crops and sell to different markets. Gray uses the census to track the evolution of food and farming systems, but she said it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It’s very good at capturing the 8,000-acre wheat farm, but historically, it has not been good at capturing smaller farms,” Gray said. “Governments are usually about 10 years behind the times in getting the programs and policies we need to support agriculture.”

Sarita Schaffer, director of Viva Farms in Mount Vernon and regional coordinator for the WSA Immigrant Farming Program, is eager to see the results of the census. She’s seeing a lot of excitement from young people in the field of organic agriculture, so she anticipates the average age of a farmer will drop. In addition, she thinks there may be an increase in ownership by minorities, particularly among Latinos and Hispanics.

“I think it is incredibly useful to track trends and statistics,” Schaffer said.

When asked why some farmers fail to complete the census, Schaffer said that many of them simply don’t have the time to fill out the form while also trying to run a business and make a living.

Mark Lovejoy, owner of Garden Treasures in Arlington, did not complete the survey in 2007 and does not plan to complete it this year either, though he says he has been threatened with prosecution for failing to comply.

“I don’t think the census is there to keep small scale farming alive in this country,” Lovejoy said. “I’m not hiding what I do. None of that data is useful to me.”

Lovejoy believes that the census benefits large agricultural companies and multi-generational farms that have the resources to analyze the data. One of his primary concerns is that larger companies will use the information to increase their competitive advantage, squeezing out the small, local farmer. He doesn’t want to share his marketing, research and development or success with large farms that compete against his 25-acre, organic farm. Lovejoy also doesn’t buy that the USDA is using the information to benefit small farms or rural communities.

“I don’t see any of that money coming back,” he explained.

For more information about the upcoming census, visit http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/index.php or contact the USDA at 888-424-7828.

The process

Here’s how the agricultural census will be conducted:

The agricultural census, gathering data for 2012, will be mailed out to all known farms in the United States on or around Dec. 28.

The paper version is 24 pages long. Respondents can complete and return this form, or fill out an electronic version online. Respondents who choose this option will log in with a unique code to identify their farm.

The census contains 37 sections, asking respondents to complete all applicable sections (e.g., Vegetables, Potatoes and Melons; Hogs and Pigs; Aquaculture; Bees, etc.)

Estimated time for completion is 50 minutes.

Responses are requested by Feb. 4, 2013, but respondents are encouraged to get their census data in as early as possible.

Those who do not return the form will receive follow-up calls from census workers.

The form is available in English and Spanish, but the NASS will work with respondents who speak other languages.

Those with questions can call 888-424-7828 toll free, or visit http://agcensus.usda.gov/index.php for more information.

In the summer or fall 2013, the NASS will ask for feedback on the census, including recommendations for improving the process for the next census in 2017.

Published in the December 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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