Commentary: Do farmers fill out census accurately?

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With the window to respond to the 2012 Census of Agriculture officially closing on May 31, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is urging farmers and ranchers not to miss this opportunity to be counted and “help determine the future of farming in America.”

In one sentence of a news release, it is an “opportunity,” and in another sentence it is “required” that farmers and ranchers respond to the agricultural census.   

It is likely that those who are avoiding filling out the census feel that their voice and data will make little difference in a nation where facts seem to be ignored in place of politics. In this day and age of increased complaints about privacy issues, such as livestock tracking or drones flying over private property, there seems to be heightened concern about privacy more than ever before.

I remember answering the telephone while growing up on the farm, and hearing the person say they were with the Agricultural Census and needed to talk to my father. Of course dad was outside working, and when I reported a person had called, he complained about how the government didn’t need to know anything about his small operation. I know that dad finally provided census information, but I don’t think it was very accurate.

Do farmers and ranchers really answer the questions completely accurate? Do they exaggerate to downsize their operations or upscale so that it appears they have bigger operations than the truth. Maybe those who exaggerate one way are offset by those that exaggerate the other way.

USDA has received more than 2 million completed census forms. Apparently the USDA has to plead for cooperation every time the census is done.

"Our nation needs your help to ensure that decisions about U.S. agriculture accurately represent you, your communities, and your industry," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "For every 158 people in America there is one farm. I urge you to take action today and respond to the Census. Your country is counting on the information to help ensure a continued supply of food, fiber and fuel for generations to come."

The Agriculture Census was first conducted in 1840, and is now conducted every five years. The deadline to respond to this Census of Agriculture is May 31. USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) may contact producers by phone or in person to collect census information since time is running out, which is likely going to be a drain on the department’s budget at a time when funds have been trimmed.

The USDA says the census is the only source of consistent and comprehensive agricultural data for every state and county in the nation. It looks at farms, value of land, market value of agricultural production, farm practices, expenditures, and other factors that affect the way farmers and ranchers do business. The information is used by agribusinesses, town planners, local governments, and policy makers, as well as farmers, ranchers, growers and others to shape farm programs, boost rural services and grow the future of farming.

Farmers and ranchers can return their forms by mail or online by visiting a secure website, Federal law requires a response from everyone who receives the census form and requires NASS to keep all individual information confidential.

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