Opinion – There's still time: why respond to your agriculture census


There's still time.

To ensure an accurate representation of the agriculture industry in this country, the United States Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service has extended its 2017 Census of Agriculture response deadline through spring, and the Rural Coalition-Coalición Rural is calling on all farmers and ranchers to participate.

Representing thousands of diverse producers throughout the United States, the RC has worked for 40 years to promote just and sustainable rural development that brings fair returns to diverse farmers and communities. It also works to protect the environment and bring safe and healthy food to consumers.

Serving as an advocacy voice, the RC secured more than 30 sections of policies in the 2008 Farm Bill that provided more opportunities for small and minority producers and developed methods and models to serve its constituencies best.

Small and minority producers need policymakers to continue to respect their value. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, small farms make up 88 percent of all U.S. farms. Data like this demonstrate small farms' economic importance. With a new farm bill around the corner, this is the time to be counted.

The agriculture census is conducted once every five years and sent to every farm and ranch in the country. (t is the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and impartial agriculture data down to the county level.

Census data are then relied on when government agencies and Congress make important decisions about farm policy, disaster relief, loan programs, research, technology development, infrastructure improvements and more. Trade associations, extension educators, agribusinesses, and even farmers and ranchers themselves, have used census data in support of American agriculture.

For nearly 30 years, the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program has been the primary tool to help historically underserved producers gain access to USDA's credit, commodity, conservation and other services. In the four years of the 2008 Farm Bill, the program received $75 million in mandatory funds, or about $18 million per year.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of Hispanic and Asian-American farmers increased 21 percent, African-American farmers increased 12 percent and Native American farmers increased 5 percent. In the 2014 farm bill, Congress expanded OASDFR to include farmers who are military veterans, making increased funding all the more necessary. However, that farm bill reduced mandatory funds to only $10 million annually.

If everyone is counted, data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture will help make the case for restoring the additional funding needed to bring OASDFR to its previous or better levels. This is just one example of how census data have been and will be used.

For farmers and ranchers, the Census of Agriculture is their voice, their opportunity to be represented in the data. There's strength in numbers.

This year's census of agriculture aims to show an even more detailed account of the industry. Producers will see a new question about military veteran status and expanded questions about food marketing practices and on-farm decision-making to better capture the roles and contributions of new farmers, women farmers and others involved in running the business.

We don't know what the 2017 Census of Agriculture will tell us about changes over the last five years, but now is the time to ensure an accurate representation of the industry, not only for the future of your operation but your community as well. We urge you to respond to your census of agriculture today.

Lorette Picciano is Executive Director of the Rural Coalition/Coalición; Willard Tillman represents the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project; and Rudy Arredondo represents National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association on the Rural Coalition/Coalición board.