I had just finished my morning chores on the last day of 2017 with the lovely assistance of an invigorating minus-12 degree thermometer reading and brisk winds, when I sat down to complete another task.
It was time to complete the 2017 Census of Agriculture, a reporting requirement for farmers conducted every five years through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And why is this done? The letter I received clearly explains.
“The information gleaned guides Congress, agribusinesses, policymakers, researchers, local governments and many others on the creation and funding of agricultural programs and services — decisions that can directly impact you and the future of the agriculture industry for years to come.”
Even though it isn’t due until Feb. 5, I figured it was a good thing to take off my plate and end the year without my usual proclivity for procrastination — as the editor of this column knows all too well. And the notification letter has been sitting on my desk since November.
So I grabbed a cup of coffee, logged on with my 17-digit code, and with numbness in both fingers and brain, began my responses as required by law. I was told it would take me about 50 minutes, “including the time for reviewing instructions, searching existing data sources, gathering and maintaining the data needed, and completing and reviewing the collection of information.”
Clearly that time allotments didn’t factor in coffee and bathroom breaks. It didn’t allow for keeping up to date on critical social media posts, like the 432nd “Happy New Year” meme shared by my electronic acquaintances.
The census is not just for big farmers. Even if you only have a small plot and you sell food or animals totaling $1,000 or more in a year, your input counts. Farming is about as diverse as it comes — from big grain operators who operate on thousands of acres to the backyard hobbyist.
It’s also a snapshot of one particular year — in this case 2017. My hay production this past year was terrible thanks to wet weather and the unfortunate timing of a tractor conflagration. Thankfully I was not required to explain those circumstances — especially my bladder-inspired attempts at extinguishing the fire.
Questions include how many acres I own, how many I rent, what percentages are in crops and in pasture, descriptions and numbers of animals, sales and amount of time spent farming.
I was thrown for a loop when asked how many households shared in the net farm income of this operation.
What’s farm income?
I also paused for a moment when asked, “Is this person retired from farming or ranching?”
It was a yes-or-no question, but there should be an option for “he should be if he had any common sense.”
There was also no option to explain the purpose of Steve the Goat, who is not really a meat goat or a dairy goat, but simply exists for amusement purposes. But he was counted, along with his companions Peter and Pan — the two mini-donkeys — the sheep, rams, chickens, and Scottish Highland cows, steers and bulls.
When all was said and done, I had gone through two cups of coffee, one bathroom break, a few social media diversions and completed the 34-section, 24-page document in about 40 minutes. It’s always good to be above average.
And it’s always good to comply with United States law — Title 7 USC 2204(g) Public Law 105-113 — that requires all those who receive a Census of Agriculture report form to respond.
The results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture will not be released until February 2019. I suspect that among the results we will find a continuation of the trend that farmers are becoming older, and farms are becoming fewer and larger.
I wonder if it will tell me that I’m becoming wiser.
Former Tribune editor Chris Hardie and his wife, Sherry, raise sheep and cattle on his great-grandparents’ Jackson County farm.