By Stephen Smoot
While most of the country wrapped up its participation in major statistical surveys in 2020, farmers have been asked to provide information to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, generally called the Census of Agriculture.
The agriculture census has almost nothing to do with information that the United States Census Bureau collects through its Constitutional mandate every 10 years. Information for this count is collected by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, operated by the United States Department of Agriculture. The survey takes place every five years.
According to the USDA, “the Census of Agriculture is a complete count of U. S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them.” This census asks information of anyone who sells more than $1,000 worth of “growing fruit, vegetables, or some food animals.” Whether in a rural, suburban, or even an urban setting.
The US Census Bureau also collects business information that it releases almost yearly on national, state, and county level economic trends. The County Business Patterns Data numbers, however, exclude most aspects of agricultural operations.
Kent Leonhardt, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, stated in a release that “we encourage everyone who receives a census to participate.” He explained that “this is the only source of impartial, comprehensive, state and county level agriculture in the nation.” Information helps Congress and the federal government develop funding formulas in the Farm Bills. Additionally, information provided “helps local governments, extensions, educators, and researchers make informed decisions that directly affect our state’s farm operations, communities, and industries.”
For example, information gathered during the 2012 and 2017 agricultural censuses showed that Pendleton County added a cattle operation between those years, raising the total number to 380. The number of total cattle on county farms, however, dropped from 21,550 to 20,892. Additionally, the number of farms raising sheep and lambs in the county dropped from 90 to 70, but the number of animals on those farms increased from 4,013 in 2012 to 4,221 in 2017.
When confronted with statistics like this, officials can investigate whether the number shifts over the five-year period occurred as a result of market conditions or if there is a problem requiring assistance. The numbers break down into more specific statistical categories, but not specific enough to reveal sensitive operations information of specific farms.
Also, the statistics gathered this year will reveal the impact of the pandemic and subsequent supply chain shortages on agriculture at the national, state, and local level.
One of the main concerns of respondents to both the United States Census and Census of Agriculture centers around data security. According to Alissa Cowell-Mytar, the West Virginia State Statistician for the National Agriculture Statistics Service, “all information is kept confidential under federal law.” She went on to explain that “we publish in aggregate for and for statistical purposes only.” Just as with the U.S. Census County Business Patterns Data, care is taken to prevent identification of any individual by looking at the numbers. She also said, “we don’t sell information, such as addresses or other personal data.”
Those responding online will only be asked to answer questions relevant to their operation, as opposed to sifting through the full set. This, as Cowell-Mytar explained, will make responding much more efficient.
She agreed with Leonhardt on the importance of responding, offering that the survey creates “data used by decision-makers to help them to create policies to aid agriculture on the state and local level.” Additionally, it is “an opportunity to making local farming voices heard.”
Feb. 6 will be the final day that farmers can respond to the Census of Agriculture.