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Opinion: Census of Ag provides input opportunities

The history of collecting data in U.S. agriculture dates back to President George Washington, who was known for keeping meticulous statistical records describing his and other farms. Such information was essential during this time when nine out of every 10 Americans lived on a farm. They needed to know what crops they should produce to ensure a plentiful bounty for the people to eat. 

While much has changed since then, the importance of accurate agricultural data to today’s farmers and ranchers is no different. As a highly technical industry, American agriculture relies heavily on statistical information to feed, fuel and clothe a growing world. From selecting inputs to determining when to sell their goods, America’s farmers need detailed, statistical information to effectively run their businesses. Thankfully, there are tools like the Census of Agriculture that help in this regard.

Taken every five years, the Census of Agriculture is a survey of America’s farms, ranches and the people that operate them. It is the most complete agricultural data resource available, providing the only source of uniform, comprehensive information for every county in the nation. 

In light of this, I am pleased to report that the 2012 Census of Agriculture will begin shortly. Beginning the first of the year, Census forms will have started arriving in farm mail boxes across the country, providing agricultural producers a voice in the future of their industry and community.

Not only does the Census give the farmers and ranchers of Wyoming the chance to be heard, but it gives them the valuable opportunity to influence key decisions that will shape the direction of American agriculture in general and our community in particular for years to come.

The Census looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures and other topics. It provides the only source of uniform, comprehensive agricultural data for every county in the nation. The Census of Agriculture provides information that is not available anywhere else – information that benefits agricultural producers and their communities in a myriad of ways.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed us that the average age of the agricultural producers continue to increase. Wyoming’s average age of producer is 57.1 years as of December 2007. Wyoming has the largest average size of farm/ranch with 2,726 acres. These farms and ranches sold nearly $1.2 billion of product in 2007. 

So what will the 2012 Census tell us? If we look back nearly 100 years to 1920 it is interesting to see how that year compares to 2007. The top two crops in 1920 were hay and wheat similar to today; however, the number three crop was potatoes, where in 2007 it was corn. 

If we look at livestock in 1920, Wyoming had over 2,000 farms that raised sheep with over 1.8 million head compared to around 900 farms in 2007 with sheep currently at 375,000 head. However, just 10 years earlier in 1910, there were 5.4 million head. 

Cattle inventory in Wyoming as of Jan. 2012 was 1.36 million head compared to 1920, where the inventory was around 875,000.

An interesting note is the number of dairy cattle in 1920 totaled over 34,000 head, and today Wyoming raises around 6,000 head.

Census response can help determine federal support for crucial services that aid local communities. Policymakers factor Census data into decisions concerning agricultural and rural programs. Community planners use Census information when developing local programs and services. Companies factor Census data into decisions concerning where to locate their operations, and farmers rely on Census data when making critical decisions about their businesses.

The Census offers a tremendous value to rural stakeholders, and the time it takes to complete the form pales in comparison to what they get in return. Responding will be even easier this year as producers may fill out the form via a secure website.

NASS will mail out Census forms in late December, and responses are due by Feb. 4, 2013. Producers also have the option to complete their forms online. After all, the Census is your voice, your future and your responsibility. For more information about the Census, visit agcensus.usda.gov or call 800-4AG-STAT (888-424-7828).