Calling all farmers: USDA wants to know how your last harvest went

Every five years, the Agriculture Department releases a census to gauge U.S. farms and ranches, as well as the people who operate them. The questionnaire is issued and catalogued by USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. To find out what it entails, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the head of NASS, Hubert Hamer.

Interview transcript:

Hubert Hamer
U.S. Census of Agriculture has a long history, first conducted in 1840, over at the United...

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Every five years, the Agriculture Department releases a census to gauge U.S. farms and ranches, as well as the people who operate them. The questionnaire is issued and catalogued by USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. To find out what it entails, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the head of NASS, Hubert Hamer.

Interview transcript:

Hubert Hamer
U.S. Census of Agriculture has a long history, first conducted in 1840, over at the United States Census Bureau, moved to the United States Department of Agriculture in 1997. And it’s been conducted every five years since.

Eric White
Gotcha. And what is it composed of, is it mostly questions pertaining to what ag producers are working on, or is it also taking notes of the kind of workforce that they have working with them?

Hubert Hamer
OK, when you think of the census that basically measures the structure of U.S. Agriculture, how much land is involved in production? How many farmers are involved? How many farms, the value of production and sales and agriculture, so it’s a very comprehensive look every five years at the scope of U.S. Agriculture.

Eric White
And so you send out notifications, and then the farmers, I imagine or ag producers, we can call them send in a paper form, or is it done online, or is that a fairly new development?

Hubert Hamer
Well, actually, the first chance to respond is online. We’re really encouraging producers to go online, it’s the fastest, most effective way to provide the information. And again, the best benefit for the taxpayers to do it that way. For those who don’t have good internet access, we follow up with paper questionnaires. And you can provide the information on paper as well.

Eric White
And what did the ag producers themselves get out of it, I know that the U.S. Census Bureau always tries to advertise the benefits that taxpayers get from the census what are the ag producers themselves get out of this?

Hubert Hamer
What’s very important information for the taxpayer for the farmers and ranchers. It provides a comprehensive look at agriculture down to the county level, we’ll have information for more than 3,000 counties, parishes and boroughs across the United States. This information helps USDA administer programs for the farmers, provide disaster assistance, provides data for policymakers, researchers, lenders and all other organizations involved in agriculture.

Eric White
So you all are the National Agricultural Statistics Service. So you are the ones in charge the gatekeepers of this information, what can you tell me about that process and how you all go about storing this information and making sure that the USDA policymakers have the information that they need?

Hubert Hamer
Well, it’s very critical information. We are the gatekeepers, we collect that information, as I stated every five years. The other benefit of providing this information to USDA to us directly. We are a principle statistical federal agency. That means that any piece of information provided to USDA NASS is confidential, cannot be shared with any other entity. It is only released at the county, the district, the state level, etc. So the data is protected. And it really does serve the rural communities and farmers and ranchers.

Eric White
Yeah. Have you experienced similar reservations about privacy concerns, such as the national census itself, whether it’s every 10 years, or is that a concern that you hear from those who do choose to participate?

Hubert Hamer
Well, we just want to be upfront, it’s an indicated on the questionnaire that their data are protected by law. So that’s very important that no one is profiting from their information. And the information again, is gathered for the benefit of U.S. Agricultural.

Eric White
And what can you tell me about the scope of the census itself, can you tell me about how many have participated in the past and what it looks like as landscape as it comes to ag production in the country?

Hubert Hamer
OK, I’ll say this, the bar for inclusion in the Census of Agriculture is very low. Any place for which $1,000 worth of ag products were sold during the reference year which will be 2022 are included, no matter the size and location of operations. We go out to collect that information directly from them and to be able to provide information back to their communities to support decision making at the local level.

Eric White
Wow so it includes corporate farmers as well as just the people that are filling out the roadside stands all across the country?

Hubert Hamer
Exactly right $1,000 of sales, you’re included. And no matter the location, we want to make sure that we collect that information. Because actually most of the producers in U.S. agriculture are our small producers. And we have, obviously corporate operations that produce the bulk of commodities. But we have producers from all walks of life and all locations around the country.

Eric White
And what else can you tell me about NASS’ work itself? Obviously, the census project is probably at the forefront at the moment. But what else, what other kinds of information gathering missions do you all participate in for USDA?

Hubert Hamer
OK, NASS is the data collection arm for USDA, we disseminate more than 450 reports on an annual basis with information on crops, livestock and environmental statistics. And every five years, the centerpiece of our data collection activity, then is a Census of Agriculture. But we’re very busy with other projects outside of the Census of Agriculture.

Eric White
Yeah, can you tell me about just one or two of those other projects?

Hubert Hamer
Yeah, I’ll give you an example. On a monthly basis, we disseminate the monthly crop production data report that has information for I’ll give you an example, the 2022 field crops, we have corn production, soybean production, the yield and production for those reports. Currently, we’re getting ready to feel the annual Agricultural Resource Management Study in cooperation with the Economic Research Service, where we measure the financial well being of U.S. agriculture. So we have a variety of programs, reports that have the inventory of hogs and pigs and cattle in the United States. So a lot of different reports for our data user community.

Eric White
And will USDA leadership call on you to help analyze specific characteristics of the agriculture industry that they are trying to observe for certain policy measures. I’m thinking about, you know, that there’s been a big push for equity and inclusion in government as well as, well in all industries, as well as climate change, or measurements that pertain to that as well. Do they call on you for that?

Hubert Hamer
Well, the sensors of ag data are used for all of those purposes. Obviously, for the farmers and ranchers, we collect demographic characteristics, the age of producers, the ethnic background of producers, a lot of our data are also used to measure production over time to try to look at some of the impact of adverse weather effects, climate change, in the light. So our data are in the mix in the middle of all of these decisions, policymakers are using these data for the Farm Bill, and other legislative activity.

Eric White
And do you all ever provide any analysis to that data as well, or is it just a strictly collecting project?

Hubert Hamer
We provide, we do analysis and provide the raw data. Our sister agency, the Economic Research Service within USDA provides some additional analysis to see exactly what that means to the market, etc. So there’s partnership within the department to provide that data to policymakers and USDA officials. I want to make sure that I thank the farmers and ranchers from across the United States, we have about 3.4 million farmers and we go out and collect and survey these producers. They are the most knowledgeable source and we just appreciate their cooperation over time. We have a great relationship with the farmers, ranchers and producer organizations, and we could not do our job without their help and support. So I just want to thank them.

 

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