The most ambitious and important agricultural survey of all is beginning in Oregon and across the nation as the 2007 Census of Agriculture reaches out to every farmer and rancher in the United States.
Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, is encouraging the state's producers to cooperate with the census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
"There are many reasons for our producers to provide the information requested by the census, but the most compelling is that information about our agriculture is key for policy makers to make good and informed decisions that affect the industry," Coba said.
The Census of Agriculture is conducted every five years. Even though this one is considered the 2007 census, the results and reports won't be completed until early 2009. That's because of the huge amount of information and details that must be gathered and analyzed.
"The census provides a comprehensive snapshot for Oregon all the way down to the county level and gives all kinds of information about the farm population, "said Chris Mertz, state director with the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service.
His staff is responsible for conducting the census in Oregon. It is sending questionnaires to all farmers on record.
Completed surveys are due Feb. 4. Timely, complete, and accurate responses to the questions in the agricultural report forms are essential, Mertz said.
"It would be worth their while for farmers and ranchers to complete the survey," he said. "There are many policy decisions that are made at the national and state level that will result from the survey. We need as accurate a data as possible because it definitely helps the agricultural community and population in general by presenting the real story of agriculture in Oregon and the U.S."
Figures compiled by the census are used to determine funding for extension work, research, soil conservation, and other agricultural-related services. Private industry uses census statistics to provide more effective production and distribution systems.
Examples are locating feed mills and farm equipment dealerships where they will provide better service and offer competitive prices to farmers. Information from such statistical data also helps make the case for specific grant program dollars.
"The census asks a lot of questions about crops, livestock, land use, ownership, equipment, chemicals used, and demographic-type questions," Mertz said.
There will be the usual questions on acreage of various crops, production values, and cost-of-production numbers. New questions this time around will focus on organic commodities, energy, conservation methods, and community-supported agriculture. Many questions simply ask for a yes-no response, but could lead to more detailed questions in subsequent surveys in the near future, he said.
Acreage data continue to be of special interest to officials in Oregon, where population pressures have created a strong debate on land use and protection of farmland - particularly in the Willamette Valley. Knowing just how many acres of farmland has been lost since the last census could be important.
"Census information helps all parties as they go through the debate on how this valuable resource shall be utilized, and will provide unbiased data for all sides in the ongoing concerns over saving natural habitat," Mertz said. "It gives people one solid block of information to take to the table as these debates continue."
The numbers provide similar help in analyzing and developing polices on water use for irrigation and for rural development.
This year, about 50,000 questionnaires are being mailed to the 40,000 farmers and ranchers in Oregon. All should be receiving their copies in early January. Most producers should be able to complete the 24-page questionnaire within a half hour, Mertz said, but for the first time, the Census of Agriculture this year offers a high tech option.
"Farmers can complete the census online," he said. "The packet of information coming in the mail will have instructions on how they can send that information by computer. As we all know, Oregon is a leading state in computer use by farmers. So, I think most Oregon farmers and ranchers would like to have this option."
The online option involves a secure Web site. Those who plan on sending back the information the old-fashioned way will need to put the census forms in the mail by the Feb. 4 deadline.
For census purposes, a farm is any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or normally would have been sold during the census year.
The law requiring farmers and ranchers to complete the census forms protects confidentiality and privacy of information they supply. Individual forms cannot be seen by anyone but sworn NASS employees.
The agriculture census is the only source of uniform data down to the county level on agricultural production and inventories. Originally taken every 10 years, farm census data has been collected every five years since 1920.
More information about the 2007 Census of Agriculture is available at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov.