As the USDA prepares to distribute the 2012 Census of Agriculture this winter, those who have responded in the past may notice expanded sections on equine, forestry and regional ag production.
"Once we get input from different groups on things they would like to see on the questionnaire, we design a questionnaire, we run out and content test it with farmers and ranchers to see how the questions play out, then we get the questionnaire finalized," says Renee Picanso of the National Agricultural Statistics Service in a USDA interview.
The USDA says preparation begins for each census just as soon as the results of the previous census are released. Results from the last census in 2007 were released in 2009.
"We start early on publicity and then we are also working on our systems for the census like the edits, the summary," Picanso says.
She added that data collection will be a little different this year as well. The NASS has been preparing to use the internet and iPads to collect information. Picanso says the process of preparing the mail list starts about two years ahead of the actual mailing.
"The number of farmers and ranchers is changing and people come in and out of business so we spend a lot of time getting the mail list," Picanso says.
The mailings, Picanso says, will be going out in a phased approach, scheduled for delivery to farmers' and ranchers' mailboxes in mid-December. Once the surveys are in-hand, collection will be completed by May, though deadline to complete the form is Feb. 4, 2013.
"Once we get all the data collected of course then we start editing, summarizing, preparing the publication, finally release the data in early February of 2014," Picanso adds.
The data that is cited most often includes number of farms, the land in farms, acreages of crops, and livestock production practices and demographic data. Picanso says this information is critical because it shows the value and importance of U.S. agriculture.
"A lot of funding is distributed based on this data," Picanso says, "so it's important to individuals as well as to local communities to have the most accurate and up to date information available on agriculture."
The agriculture census specifically counts U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. For census purposes, a farm is defined as "any place that produced and sold, or normally would have sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year."
The next census will be taken in 2017. For more information, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov.