U.S. farmers and ranchers have until Feb. 2 to report their 1997 operations to be counted in the 25th Census of Agriculture. The census offers a complete accounting of U.S. farm production.
This year, for the first time, the census is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Before, the Census Bureau had conducted the agricultural census.
To make it easier to report, this year's census forms ask questions about basic subjects. Among them are land use and ownership, crop acreage and quantities harvested, livestock and poultry inventories, value of crops and livestock sold and farm operation characteristics.
About 25 percent of the farms will be asked other questions on production expenses, machinery inventories, market value of land and buildings and income from farm-related sources.
"The dynamic nature of agriculture makes the census important," said University of Georgia expert Horace Hudson. He heads Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"Constant, significant changes happen every four or five years in agriculture. And we need to have a record of those changes," Hudson said. "We also have several commodities in Georgia, like kenaf, that are in their infancy, and we need to chart their growth."
The census, the only source of uniform, comprehensive farm data for every U.S. county, is a tool to help determine acres planted and harvested by crop. It gives valuable information to farm organizations and business planners. Policy makers also use the information in proposing national farm policy.
"Most important for farmers, it's not just a help. It's the law," Hudson said.
Federal law requires farmers to answer the census. The same law also protects the privacy of their reports. They may be seen only by sworn USDA employees and used only for statistical purposes. Copies submitted by farmers are immune from legal processes.
The data provided by the census has many uses:
* Agribusinesses use the data to develop market strategies and to learn the most effective places of service to farmers.
* Farm organizations use census data to evaluate and propose programs and policies that can help farmers.
* Elected representatives use the data to develop programs to protect and promote U.S. agriculture.
* Rural electric companies use it to forecast future energy needs for farms and farm communities.
* Colleges and universities use it in research programs to develop new and improved ways to increase production.
The census also provides a national history of agriculture. It was taken every 10 years from 1840 to 1920 and every five years from 1925 until 1974. The law was then changed to gather data on years ending in two and seven, beginning with the 1982 census.
"I don't think people realize how much a part of their communities agriculture is," said Sue Boatright. The data collection coordinator for the CAES department of agricultural and applied economics, she is also a coauthor of the annual Georgia County Guide.
"The census gives information about the counties that isn't available anywhere else," she said. "It tells just how much of the economy is dependent on agriculture and agribusiness."
Farmers and ranchers who need help completing the census form may call their county Extension Service office. Or they can call the NASS office at (888) 424-7828. Further information is also on-line at www.usda.gov/nass/.
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)