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Ag Census on its way

DANIEL LOOKER 12/17/2012 @ 11:00pm Business Editor

Starting today, some 3 million forms for the USDA's Census of Agriculture are being shipped from a federal processing center in Louisville, Kentucky. They'll be hitting the mailboxes of farmers and ranchers, possibly late this week or next, although competition from holiday mail could delay the arrival until early January for some, according to Renee Picanso, director of the Census and Survey Division at the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

The deadline to return them is February 4. But even if the Census gets its usual response of 80% to 85%, NASS will be working to pull in data from stragglers.

"We're just now starting to mail it today," Picanso told Agriculture.com. "But we will be collecting data through May."

Picanso is well aware that to some producers, the Census may not be as welcome as a Christmas card. It asks producers questions about their product sales and income that might seem like an invasion of privacy. But data from the Census underpins many USDA programs that benefit farmers and ranchers. Individual information remains confidential. And there is a $100 fine for not returning it.

Picanso isn't heavy-handed about those penalties.

"There is a $100 penalty, but we are not equipped to go out and collect $100 from everybody who doesn't respond," she said. USDA doesn't have much of a budget for collecting the penalties.

Instead, if your don't return the form, they'll send a second request by mail. You could get a telephone call from one of several data collection centers. In some cases, NASS will send out an enumerator to visit you in person.

"If they don't send it back, we will continue to contact them," Picanso said.

It's not so much large commercial farms that are a challenge for the Census, but small ones and those run by ethnic minorities who may be less aware of USDA programs. In recent years, starting with the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the USDA has worked harder to find small growers among those groups.

For large commercial farms that don't cooperate with the Census, "we can collect [data] from other sources to at least estimate what they are doing," Picanso said.

Some of that information comes from public sources, such as participation in commodity programs through Farm Service Agency offices, or from Natural Resource Conservation Service offices. County Extension agents may make estimates about a larger commercial farm or ranch. USDA can also find out from the IRS if you have filed a Schedule F with your tax return, but nothing else.

"We just have access to who's on the list to verify, but we can't go in and look at individual tax data," Picanso said. "The IRS does keep that confidential."

NASS also keeps individual data on census forms confidential. In fact, it cannot be disclosed even if it's the subject of a court-ordered subpoena, she said.

"All federal survey data is protected by law," she said.

Many federal agencies use Ag Census information, as a foundation for projections of farm income each year by the Economic Research Service, and to determine how much in rural development funds should go to a county, for example.

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