By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The 2012 Census of Agriculture will come soon to the mailboxes of farmers and ranchers nationwide. Census questionnaires are expected to be mailed by the end of December.
The census compiles information on the type and amount of crops grown and animals raised, and also looks at farm size, farming practices, economics and demographics, said Jay Johnson, director of the Michigan field office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
The information will be used by USDA, legislators and locally for funding distribution, planning purposes and to develop policy, he noted. “This is really used very heavily by those you rely on for advice at the local level,” he explained. “It helps to make sure that limited funds are disbursed to the right areas.”
Anyone who produced or sold $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year is eligible to participate, Johnson said. People are also eligible if they normally would have sold or produced that much during the year.
NASS plans to distribute about three million questionnaires. Farmers and ranchers who receive a census are required by law to return it, even if they no longer farm, Johnson explained. About 800,000 of the questionnaires will probably be delivered to those who don’t farm, he said.
The mailing list includes those who were farming at the time of the last census in 2007. Generally, the response rate for the census is 85-90 percent, he said.
Interested producers may visit www.agcensus.usda.gov or call 888-424-7828 to be sure their name is on the mailing list, or to request a census if they know it is not. The deadline to return the completed 24-page questionnaire is Feb. 4, 2013. Respondents have the option to return the paper questionnaire or complete it online.
Despite putting out hundreds of reports during a given year, the census is the most comprehensive look at farming compiled by NASS, Johnson said.
“It looks at every type of agriculture,” he said. “You can use it to compare and contrast with years past and with other states and counties. It has an historical perspective. It’s like looking at a still painting. It’s a complete enumeration of everything grown.”
The agriculture census was first taken in 1840 and has been done at varying intervals since, Johnson said. It has been taken every five years since 1982. Information provided on individual census forms will remain private, Johnson stated. “The census is required by law and the data is also protected by law,” he said. “Only the aggregate information will be distributed.”
NASS officials will spend the months after the Feb. 4 deadline trying to get completed census information from those did not return their questionnaires and then will begin counting and organizing the data, he said. Census results will be released in February 2014.
Johnson said he’s looking forward to seeing the results in a variety of categories, including farm practices and organic farming.
“It also helps us to look at farm succession,” he said. “We know the average age of farmers continues to tick up, but it also asks about other operators of the farm, possibly a next generation. That can help measure succession. It’s good information on the future of agriculture.”
Businesses looking to move into a general area may use information from the census to pick a specific location, said Greg Matli, deputy director of the Indiana field office of NASS.
“This tells them what’s available in a county,” he said. “For example, ethanol producers might look at the normal corn rotation for an area and the accessibility of corn. They look at everything, ag-wise.”
The census compiles information down to the county level, allowing farmers to compare such things as expenses and revenues locally, statewide and nationwide, Matli explained. “No matter how big or small you are, it’s time for your voice to be heard,” he said. “The Census of Agriculture is a benchmark that can be used to show where (agriculture) is moving to and where it’s moving from.”
Given the drought this year, Matli is looking forward to seeing if irrigation has changed in the state. He said he’s also curious if the recent trend of more small farms will continue.
“More people seem to be trying a ‘farmette’ or hobby farm,” he explained. “The number of those has been continuing to increase in the last 10 years. I’m also curious about the economics of smaller farm operations.”