The 2017 Census of Ag is Nearly Upon Us

Market Intel / May 23, 2017

Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY 2.0 


The structure and management of family farms can be as complicated as major corporations, involving multiple generations and branches of the family tree. Or a family farm could involve parents and their children, structured as a partnership. A family farm could be siblings who have taken over most management functions, but their elderly parent is still considered the head of the operation. We know there are countless ways family farms are configured and managed, but the diversity easily observable on farms around the country is often missing from the data collected through the Census of Agriculture. Some exciting changes in the 2017 Census of Agriculture will attempt to capture more nuances in demographics.

Demographics Matter

The 2012 Census of Agriculture paints a fairly homogenous picture. Demographically speaking, the average principal farmer was male, 58.3 years old and white. This profile was similar to previous years, though farmers in 2012 were more ethnically diverse than reported in 2007, a heralded change. However, compared to the 2007 CoA, the diversity of America’s farmers and ranchers by other measures seemed to decrease, prompting some concerns.

The first area of concern was that of age; the 2012 CoA reported that the average age of principal operators continued to rise. In fact by 2012, one in three principal operators was eligible for full Social Security benefits. Meanwhile, the number of principal operators 44 years or younger fell by nearly 2 percent. Further, the number of beginning farmers, often a source of younger entrants, fell by 20 percent compared to 2007. The second area of concern was a 2 percent —to 14 percent-- in the number of principal operators who were women.

Following the 2012 CoA, many in the industry, drawing on their personal experience with U.S. farms, began to wonder if the manner in which USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service measured farm operators could be masking the role of women and new/beginning operators. That feedback was well received by NASS, which set out to improve its data collection process.

The process for updating a survey as comprehensive as the Census of Agriculture requires a great deal of time and probably even more science. NASS has been moving in the direction of adding richness to operator detail for some time. Back in 2002, the CoA started collecting information on second and third operators, in order to try to capture more of the diversity of who was operating the farm. This effort added some detail, for example, when all operators, principal, and non-principal are considered – 30 percent of all operators in 2012 were women; compared to just 14 percent of principal operators being women, as reported above.

Despite that improvement, the definition of what constituted involvement continued to be fairly narrowly interpreted by survey respondents. For example, the first question in Section 35 of the Operator Characteristics section of the 2012 CoA asked the respondent, “In 2012, how many operators (individuals) were involved in the day-to-day decisions of this operation?” The question is simple enough, but there are many ways to interpret several keywords or phrases.  Some respondents may have questioned what it meant to be an operator. Does operator imply that an individual must run a piece of machinery to count as involved in the farm? If operator is interpreted this way, a respondent could omit his spouse who takes care of record keeping or the financial management of the farm. Or a respondent may wonder if “day-to-day” means daily, reoccurring decisions only. If day-to-day is interpreted this way, they might omit their grown child who has returned to the farm to add a direct-to-consumer element to the farm’s operation. Additionally, in previous CoA surveys, survey respondents were only allowed to designate a single primary operator, even if that wasn’t necessarily the case on their farm or ranch, which could have been suppressing the role of younger and/or women operators.

In order to try to overcome these challenges in the upcoming 2017 CoA, NASS put together an expert panel that recommended changes in the demographics section. NASS then conducted two rounds of extensive cognitive testing on the proposed changes. These efforts and several more that were left out for the sake of brevity have led to a new personal characteristics section for the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

The new section will allow for the collection of detailed information for four operators and allow respondents to designate more than one primary operator. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the way decision making and involvement is captured. Day-to-day decisions will still be measured, but four new decisions have also been added. These decisions fairly closely follow a 2001 Pennsylvania State University Study of Farm Women. The farm decisions that survey respondents were asked about in that study were: whether to buy or sell land; whether to rent more or less land; whether to buy major farm equipment; whether to produce something new, such as a crop or a new breed of livestock; whether to try a new production practice; and when to sell products.

It is thought that asking about additional farm decision making will lead to capturing better demographic data about who is participating in the management and direction of U.S. farms and ranches. This is important for several reasons. CoA data are used by federal, state and local governments, agribusinesses, trade associations and many others. Companies and cooperatives use the facts and figures to determine the locations of facilities that will serve agricultural producers. Community planners use the information to target needed services to rural residents. Legislators use the numbers from the Census when shaping farm policies and programs.

Published Census data directly impacts farmers’ bottom lines as well. CoA data is used by dozens of USDA programs that benefit farmers and ranchers, including the Direct Loan Program, Guaranteed Loan Program, Conservation Reserve Program, Commodity Outlook Program, Commodity Market Analysis, Extension funding and more.

Two examples from the 2014 Farm Bill also come to mind. Based on 2012 CoA data, the 2014 Farm Bill increased the flexibility for USDA’s Farm Service Agency to offer financial assistance programs to new farmers. Part of the FSA loan program is reserved for beginning farmers and ranchers (7 U.S.C. 1994 (b)(2)), both in terms of farm ownership and operation. Funds are also targeted to “socially disadvantaged” farmers by race, gender and ethnicity (7 U.S.C. 2003). Because of these provisions, FSA also is known as lender of first opportunity for borrowers who may not yet be creditworthy enough to obtain regular commercial business loans. The Specialty Crop Block grants are a second example. Grant amounts for each state whose application is accepted is influenced by the acreage of specialty crop production and value of that production, as demonstrated in the most recent Census of Agriculture data.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture will arrive at your door later this year, to be returned to USDA by Feb. 5, 2018. In many ways, it will be the same survey respondents saw in 2012, 2007, 2002, 1997, etc. But in some important ways--including, but not limited to, the demographic changes--it will try to better capture the landscape of a nuanced agricultural industry. We’re all better off if it accomplishes that goal.

Veronica Nigh
Senior Economist
(202) 406-3622

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