by Sally Colby
Hubert Hamer wants farmers and ranchers to understand the importance of the Census of Agriculture, which is being conducted this year. Hamer is the administrator for NASS; the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
But Hamer isn’t just someone in a suit and tie who works in Washington. He was raised on a small livestock farm in Mississippi, and like many others, left the farm to go to college. He understands first-hand the importance of the data that’s collected and how it affects agricultural resources, funding, marketing and a variety of other aspects that benefit farmers and ranchers of all kinds.
Hamer says the Census of Agriculture, which takes place every five years, is critically important. “The primary reason is that it measures the structure of agriculture,” he said. “The amount of land involved, the number of farms, the value of sales, demographics and all input costs. The Census of Agriculture is used for a variety of decision making purposes, and legislators, commodity groups and Farm Bill legislation will all be using the information.”
The previous Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2012, showed that more than three million farmers operated over two million farms that included 914 million acres. This data is a four percent decrease from the census conducted in 2007. However, agricultural sales, income and expenses rose between 2007 and 2012, which is important information.
The last two censuses of agriculture yielded an 80 percent response rate, which Hamer says is excellent. “The census provides comprehensive, uniform information down to the county level,” he said. “We have information for more than 2,000 counties, townships and boroughs across the United States. The majority of people do understand the importance of the census.”
Most farmers are already aware of the census due to information that’s been released since this past spring. “In March, we sent an email blast to about 600,000 email owners saying that the census was coming, and then on November 27th, we sent about one million letters out asking producers to go on line,” said Hamer. “No questionnaire was involved in that – there was a survey code provided to complete the form online. We invested a lot, and have a dynamic new web collection tool that should make the farmer interaction faster and easier.”
Hamer says the paper form will be sent later, after farmers and ranchers have had an opportunity to provide information via the web. However, he stresses the fact that the web is the most efficient, cleanest way to obtain census information because it provides quality data and cuts mailing costs significantly.
The NASS used web collection for the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and collected about 13 percent of the information via the web. “To be more efficient, we’re really stressing that producers go online,” said Hamer. “Most producers have web access. The 2012 census indicated that 70 percent of farmers and ranchers had internet access back in 2012, and we know that has grown. Most people are used to doing business that way.”
Hamer explains the new web tool is scaled so that it can be used with a smartphone, tablet or a desktop computer. The goal is to provide a user-friendly format in which producers can easily complete the census. The online version of the ag census requires the user to enter the unique 17-digit survey code from the address label on the paper questionnaire or letter, then it’s a matter of following the prompts. “The new format for the web questionnaire is very efficient,” said Hamer. “Users can click on the items they have on their farm or ranch and the other items fade away, and then you complete it for the items you actually have on your farm or ranch.”
Completing the census on line calculates totals so the numbers are accurate and correct. Once the online form is completed, producers can opt to print a copy of the completed survey form via browser options. Users who complete the form online will not receive a paper form.
New farmers who didn’t receive any correspondence via mail or who didn’t complete the 2012 form can receive a report form on line and click on ‘Make Sure You Are Counted’. The NASS defines a farm operation as ‘any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or would normally have been sold, during the census year.
One concern voiced by some producers is the issue of privacy and government interference with personal business, but Hamer assures farmers and ranchers that the information is confidential, protected by law and not shared with any other organizations — in or out of government. “The information is strictly controlled by NASS and will not be shared,” he said. “The only way you’ll see information is at the county or state or U.S. level in some kind of summary.”
Hamer wants to make sure that people understand that since census process happens only once in five years, it’s important to participate each time. “We want to do everything we can to make sure it’s as accurate and up to date as possible,” he said, “and that we get all of the different segments of agriculture and all of the different participants in agriculture counted so we know where they are in the value of the contributions they make to U.S. agriculture.”
Information about the online survey, including FAQs and toll-free telephone numbers can be found at www.agcensus.usda.gov/.