4 Questions for the New Census of Agriculture

April 9, 2019 | 12:30 pm
Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

Every five years, number-hungry analysts eagerly await the release of the US Census of Agriculture to get a fresh glimpse at the state of the US food and farm system. The newest version, which contains data reflecting conditions in 2017, is expected to be released on April 11, marking the first update to the crucial dataset since 2012. In addition to offering updated data for many characteristics that have been monitored for decades, this Census included some new questions expected to offer critical insights for a rapidly changing world.

What makes the Census of Agriculture so special?

Since 1840, the Census has been used to create a rich dataset that tracks trends on the nation’s farmlands and rangelands, such as shifts in demographics, farming practices, economics, and more. This comprehensive and consistent survey is conducted by the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) and covers all states and counties in the nation, and US farms and ranches of all shapes and sizes. The survey is mandatory for operations with expected sales of at least $1,000. This time around, the survey was mailed to 3 million operations, and 72 percent of those surveyed responded (nearly 75 percent responded in 2012 and 78 percent in 2007).

Given its breadth, Census data is a key resource used by decision-makers—including farmers, ranchers, community leaders, legislators, and companies—to understand and plan for the future of agriculture. Census data influences decisions about programs and funding for research, safety nets, infrastructure investments, and more. As we count down the days to the release, here are some things to think about.

Four questions we’ll be asking of the new US Census of Agriculture

One of the first things I’ll be looking for on April 11 is to see whether some key trends from 2007 to 2012 have continued into 2017. I’ll also be curious to see what can be learned from new survey questions incorporated in 2017. My top questions include:

  1. Are farmers getting older? According to the 2012 census, the average US farmer was 58 years old, male, and white, suggesting an aging and homogenous workforce. These demographics have drawn concern, especially given the growing global population, continued rates of food insecurity in the US and abroad, and the increasingly urgent need for a more sustainable agriculture. The recent growth of organizations such as the National Young Farmers Coalition has been encouraging, and changes in the 2018 Farm Bill suggest momentum in support of new and more demographically diverse farmers. But how much have things changed since 2012?
  2. Has farm consolidation increased? The characteristics of farms in recent years have been trending toward higher production expenses, increasing concentration of value in the largest farms, and other factors that make the idea of making a living on a farm hard to fathom for most. Are there any signs of change on these fronts as of 2017, or is there even more work ahead of us?
  3. Are conservation and other healthy soil practices catching on? Yet another thing that will be interesting to see is whether there are any shifting trends in farming practices since 2012. In the past few years, there has been a growing dialogue on healthy soils among US farmers and ranchers, alongside an expanding body of reports outlining the threats posed to them by climate change. In response, there’s evidence that farmers and ranchers are adopting more conservation practices, such as cover cropping, that can help them build resilience to extreme weather. But the release of the 2017 Census will be an important opportunity to gauge whether change is actually happening on a larger level.
  4. What insights can we glean from new questions in the 2017 census? In addition to giving us more data on trends tracked in the past, the 2017 Census will provide benchmarks in some new categories, such as military veteran status. It also asks new questions about farm demographics, decision making, and more. These new questions could provide a foundation for new learning and inquiry in future years.

More data worth waiting for

Some of the data from this round of the Census is yet to come, so there will still be plenty to look forward to even after April 11. Upcoming data will include results from Puerto Rico and other US territories, as well as the 2018 Irrigation and Water Management Survey and the 2018 Census of Aquaculture. And we’ll have to wait even more patiently for the Organic Survey, the Census of Horticulture Specialties, and the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, which will be available beginning in late 2020.

As rich as the Census has become, it’s also true that it can’t be expected to capture everything. Therefore, some of the data I’d personally love to see (like soil carbon content, details of cover crop diversity, and so on) will still only be on my wish list—at least in the short-term.

Protecting the past and future of historical data and research integrity

The most recent edition of the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural dataset is guaranteed to give us a valuable look at the state of farming and ranching in the US. But what seems less guaranteed is the future of the agencies that we rely on to collect and make sense of it all. These include NASS and the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), both of which are at risk of tighter budgets, and the latter of which is facing potential relocation.

So, as you prepare to dig in, consider taking a moment to think about the names behind the numbers, and what you can do to maximize and protect this national treasure trove of information.