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The USDA's Census of Agriculture — which takes place every five years — is now underway again

A red combine rolls toward the camera. It is running through a field of dry soybeans.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A farmer in northwest Missouri runs a combine through a field of soybeans in November 2022. The USDA sent out postcards last month asking farmers and ranchers to fill out its Census of Agriculture online. Paper copies will got out later this month.

The Census of Agriculture produces the clearest snapshot of agriculture in the U.S. as it exists. The USDA will begin mailing questionnaires to all known agricultural producers this month.

Every five years, the USDA conducts its Census of Agriculture, the most complete count of all the farms and ranches in the U.S. and the people that operate them.

Mark Schleusener is the Illinois State Statistician for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. He says agricultural producers of all stripes should be represented in the data.

“This is the chance for all farmers, ranchers of all kinds and sizes, to make sure that their voice is heard,” he said, “that they are counted and accounted for in the world of legislation.”

The Census of Agriculture, which was first taken in 1840, measures every kind of agricultural commodity produced in the country; everything from bison to emus all the way down to field crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.

Operation sizes may vary, but rural and urban agricultural producers alike are eligible to fill out the ag census as long as more than $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold or could have been sold during the census year. Schleusner adds that agritourism is also included.

“That can be a very big part of some farms' bottom line. If they've got a petting zoo, or maybe they've got corn maze,” he said. “Some places are really big into that and it generates dollars for their farm through agritourism.”

In the Mail

In November, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service began mailing out postcards to every known farm and ranch in the country with instructions about filling out the census online.

Andrea Hazzard runs a small farm in Pecatonica, Illinois. She grows a wide variety of crops and plants three different times during the year. And she was one of the thousands of the farmers across the U.S. to receive one of the USDA’s postcards.

“I did receive one,” said Hazzard.”And it's interesting, because this year, they've gone to asking us to fill it out online or call and have a paper application sent.”

Hazzard is busy wrapping up her last harvest, but she said that she’ll fill out the survey when it’s time.

Responses are due back Feb. 6.

An old baler sits in a northern Illinois barn
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Harvest Public Media
An old baler sits in a northern Illinois barn. The Census of Agriculture provides data about crops and livestock, farm size and ownership and the producers.

For those agricultural producers that would prefer to fill out the ag census by hand, Schleusner said that paper copies will ship this month.

“We will be mailing out questionnaires with paid return envelopes, and those will be sent out on December 13, 20, and 27,” he said. “So by the end of the year, everybody's going to have a hard copy questionnaire in your hands. If you've already responded online, thank you very much. That helps save taxpayer dollars.”

The USDA’s NASS will publish statistics in 2024 down to the county level for virtually everything: how many farms are there, how big are those farms, what types of farms are they. It will also contain information about the people who operate them, including their age, gender and how many of them are veterans.

The results of the ag census help the USDA and legislators determine areas of focus or opportunities for improving existing programs, according to Kate Hansen, a policy associate with the Center for Rural Affairs. But it’s public information that’s available to anyone that’s interested. The Center for Rural Affairs has utilized the data in the past to develop programming and outreach, Hansen said.

“The most recent Census of Agriculture was 2017 and that census showed us that 11% of all farmers are also veterans,” she said. “At the center, we do a lot of education and outreach, and accordingly, we have programs that train beginning veteran farmers and help them minimize barriers to entry.

According to the USDA, the 2022 Census of Agriculture will include several new questions about the use of precision agriculture, hemp production and internet access.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

I cover issues related to wildlife, conservation and ecology for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk from WNIJ in DeKalb, Illinois. I’m a Report For America corps member.
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