By Alexis Griffee
The United States Department of Agriculture has started sending out the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Sadly, in a world filled with scams attempting to gain your personal information for nefarious reasons and a lack of confidence in the government, the agricultural census is often met with distrust.
Conducted once every five years, the census aims to get a complete and accurate picture of American agriculture. The resulting data are used by farmers, ranchers, trade associations, researchers, policymakers, and many others to help make decisions in community planning, farm assistance programs, technology development, farm advocacy, agribusiness setup, rural development, and more.
Naturally, most homesteaders, farmers and ranchers have an independent streak. We crave the independence that this lifestyle lends us, and we desire to hold onto it with all our might — especially since it seems to be under attack from numerous directions lately. Despite what may at first seem an invasion of privacy, the census is nothing new to producers and provides a means of opportunity for those involved with agriculture.
The first Census of Agriculture was taken in 1840. You can even see the details of this document online through the official historical archive website. Although the agricultural census itself is not new, as more new people venture into agriculture, the arrival of this document may come as a bit of a shock and is often greeted with suspicion.
Just as agriculture has grown, and diversified so has the census. The current agricultural census can seem overwhelming or even intimidating. In fact, there are pages of questions. Why do they need to ask all of these questions? There are very valid reasons.
One of the first things that you will note is that not all of the questions are relevant to individual agricultural operations. Agriculture is a huge industry and fitting it all into one questionnaire is no easy feat. Believe it or not, all of these targeted, industry-specific questions are created to help each of these individual areas of agriculture.
Once the census has been completed and calculated, the numbers are made public. Although your personal information is protected, the overall data is calculated and published. These numbers are used by numerous offices, from the United States Department of Agriculture, to state and local levels, and even down to the local real estate agent. The data that is collected is what helps drive, change or stop policies.
One of the strongest reasons for filling out the agricultural census is personal. The census of agriculture is your opportunity to be counted! It is no secret that when it comes to politics and politicians, favor usually follows the side with the numbers, or votes, that seem to have the most pull. Is there a current fight for zoning changes in your area? Land use? Land value? All of these things are impacted by the census numbers.
The census data is also used is to justify the employment and operation of your county’s local Extension office. The extension office is an invaluable, and free, tool for agricultural producers of any size. From the hobbyist to large-scale commercial farms, your local Extension agent has their finger on the pulse of agriculture in your area. However, in a time where funding is short, the numbers shown in the census can mean the difference between an office that is fully staffed, or one that is not running at all. These numbers justify the employment and programs that are offered to your community, at no cost.
Even the fate of local businesses may be determined by census information. Any business that is considering starting in an area does due diligence. Opening a business is not a venture taken lightly by the owners, investors, suppliers, etc. Research on the impact, and potential clientele, that the business will have within the local area is required for most startups. From franchisers, product wholesale contracts or even banks for startup loans, they want to see more than your dream on paper, they want to see the numbers. The information provided by the census will inform these new businesses where it would be advantageous to open.
New businesses mean economic opportunity for residents and also money in your pocket. The savings of having a store that can supply your needed items, without shipping, or a long drive that employs and trains local residents is a win for any community.
Regardless of whether or not you may personally believe in taking loans or grants through the government or other banking entities, this information is used when it comes to allocating funds for specific areas. Different areas get set amounts of funding based on the numbers provided in these documents. Although different ventures may take different means of getting their agricultural endeavors funded and started, our lack of response should not be a way to damage the chances of those seeking a new beginning.
Are certain crops in an area not producing? Is there a trend to production that could benefit other farmers? Are the organic farms outproducing conventional ones? The Ag Census information also helps to guide research, allocate program funding and identify potential problems. With all of the recent concerns about the fate of the honeybee, where do you think that the data come from showing hive numbers? The information that was provided by producers is what helped to identify, find and help the issue. Failure to provide the information skews the data, the results and the efforts made to head off any problems.
The irony of the situation is that many of us do not hesitate to fill out social media data mining surveys that promise to tell us nonsense like what breed of dog we would be. However, all the while, we refuse to fill out the census that is aimed at promoting and protecting our way of life.
We must remember that information is power. Knowing the facts behind the agricultural movement is what gives producers a true voice that is strong and backed by data. Instead of viewing this as an intrusion, we should be looking at it as an opportunity. It does not matter if you are a vendor at a small farmers’ market of a commercial producer, being involved in agriculture is challenging and immensely rewarding. It is something that we should be proud of.
Census of Agriculture: How-To
The only people we hurt by not providing this information are those that have the same dream and vision as we do. Here’s a short video to help you respond to the 2017 Census of Agriculture online. The census response deadline is February 5, 2018. For more information about the 2017 Census of Agriculture, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov or call 800-727-9540.
Alexis Griffee is a military wife, homesteader and advocate for agricultural education. She writes on agricultural topics for various publications and on her blog, Muckboots and Munchkins.