Calling all farmers for the 2017 USDA census of agriculture

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Posted Jan. 04, 2017, at 5:41 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Are you a farmer? If you are, even on a tiny scale, it’s a safe bet that the United States Department of Agriculture is looking for you.

Every five years, the federal agency’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts a census of agriculture, the country’s leading source of facts and figures about farms, ranches and the people who operate them.

“It’s the one standardized scientific overview of agriculture in the United States,” John Bott, the director of communications for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said Wednesday. “We use it to try and see where we are as a state.”

For the 2017 census, all farmers or ranchers are asked to participate, even if their agricultural enterprise is quite small. The census considers an operation to be a farm if it sells or normally would sell $1,000 or more in agricultural products every year. That’s a low bar, Bott said, adding that it’s possible some of those smaller producers might not realize that they count a farmers, too.

“There could be a lot of people out there doing honey or something, having farm stands, who meet the threshold,” he said. “They should do the survey.”

Thanks to the census of agriculture, Mainers have learned in the last decade or so that we are bucking a national trend and increasing rather than decreasing our land in agriculture, Bott said. In the 2012 census, which was released in 2014, the state also learned that it was attracting more young farmers than other places in the country. The number of farmers age 34 and younger in Maine grew by nearly 40 percent in the five years between 2007 and 2012, compared with an increase of just 1.5 percent in the country as a whole.

“We’re bucking the trend,” Bott said, adding that he expects the next census to show a continued growth in Maine agriculture. “I think we’re overall on the upswing. But you have to bear in mind that with agriculture, some things are always up and some things are always down.”

One of the areas that hasn’t been growing is dairy farms, he said. Although milk production has remained relatively stable over the years, the number of dairy farms in the state has been shrinking as the industry has struggled.

Still, overall, the agriculture news that has come from the census has been good.

Bott said after the 2012 census, the state learned that agritourism had increased nearly 80 percent, and that the market value of agricultural products in Maine had grown by 24 percent. One interesting piece of information gleaned from the 2012 census, though, is that about 10 percent of farms in Maine produce 90 percent of gross agricultural sales. That means that many of the state’s more than 8,000 farms are small — and that’s why it’s so important to have as many of those small farms participate in the census as possible.

“It’s important to the future of farming,” Bott said.

If farmers have previously received a census of agriculture or survey questionnaire from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, they should receive the 2017 questionnaire by late December 2017 or January 2018. If they have not previously received the census questionnaire, they are asked to provide contact information at agcounts.usda.gov/cgi-bin/counts/.