Farmers and ranchers across America will have their voices heard in the USDA Census of Agriculture, and the data collected in the coming months will certainly help shape agricultural policy for years to come.
The census began in 1840 and is conducted every 5 years to get a complete picture of American agriculture.
Farm operations that produced and sold at least $1,000 of agricultural product in 2017 are included. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service started mailing surveys to producers of all sizes in December, and responses should be collected by February 5.
The resulting data will be used by farmers, ranchers, trade associations, researchers, policymakers, academics and many others to help make important decisions in farm policies, technology development, rural development, and more, according to USDA.
For example, the last census helped quantify several important trends in agriculture, such as the number of farms selling directly to consumers and retailers, a 144 percent increase in farms using renewable energy and the upward march of farm expenses – a trend that has continued even as crop prices have fallen, precipitating an historical decline in net farm income.
Of course, census information can also be misused by professional critics like the Environmental Working Group or Heritage. These groups often take advantage of the census’ low $1,000-sales threshold used to define a farmer – generating comparisons that make full-time family farms seem larger than they are.
Farm Policy Facts explored this topic in detail last December, noting:
Bear in mind, $1,000 in sales doesn’t translate to $1,000 in profit. It is simply a measure of revenue that does not consider expenses.
So, if a weekend gardener spent $5,000 caring for his plot throughout the year, had a bumper crop of cucumbers, and sold them for $1,000 to a vendor at the local farmers’ market, he would have a $4,000 loss – and he would be defined as a farmer.
So, when critics say that farm policy benefits mostly go to the top 10 percent of farms, they are essentially complaining that the men and women who grow the bulk of America’s food and fiber are receiving a bigger share of the safety net than the $1,000-revenue growers.
Updating and better understanding census data will be particularly timely as Congress continues the debate over the 2018 Farm Bill amid a slumping farm economy. And even though some will likely misuse the census to attack America’s farm safety net, it still enables farm advocates to quantify the need for strong farm policies in these difficult times.
For more information about the census, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov.