USDA's use of Ag Census under microscope

USDA's use of Ag Census under microscope

House Ag Committee subcommittee takes a look at how USDA uses Census of Agriculture data

In a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, House Ag Committee subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research discussed expansion of and concerns about the USDA Census of Agriculture.

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Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research chairman (center) is seen at a subcommittee hearing in September with fellow members Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., (left) and Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., (right). (House Ag Committee photo)

The Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years, is used by economists, state, local, and federal policy-makers, financial analysts and farmers. However, in January 2015, the Agriculture Committee received correspondence from farmers and ranchers concerned that the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service improperly used the Census of Agriculture authority to conduct a mandatory survey entitled Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land.

The TOTAL survey inquired about all aspects of an operator's personal financial portfolio as well as all aspects of farm related income and expenses.

The TOTAL survey is a combination of what was previously the Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey, which was traditionally conducted as a follow-on Census of Agriculture survey, and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, which has been prior to this year conducted by the Economic Research Service as a voluntary, academic survey.

Members of the committee primarily expressed concerns regarding the compulsory aspect of the expanded TOTAL survey.

"The most recent version of the TOTAL survey is extremely time-consuming, burdensome, and over broad in nature, and I'm concerned about the potentially negative effects this mandatory survey will have on farmers' willingness to participate in the Census of Agriculture," said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., subcommittee chairman.

Davis said the Census can't be undermined because it's a very important tool for developing strong agricultural policy, rural development and farmland assessment.

"It guides our decision-making process, helps us determine what, if any, changes must be made to better serve and provide for farmers and ranchers, and gives us the ability to run farm programs and implement the Farm Bill," Davis said in opening remarks.

Ag committee chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, agreed. "The most recent version of the mandatory TOTAL survey is unnecessarily complex, intrusive and requires valuable time that farmers would otherwise spend operating their businesses," Conaway said.

Joseph T. Reilly, administrator of the National Agriculture Statistics Service, was the sole witness. In his testimony, Reilly said with every survey NASS conducts, a pledge of confidentiality is provided to survey respondents and extensive measures are taken to honor that pledge.

"NASS processes information using approved and certified computer technology and protocols that protects data integrity," Reilly's testimony said, addressing privacy concerns. "NASS’s dedication to research and continued process improvement will ensure the organization remains relevant and viable to fill the urgent need for timely, accurate, and useful statistics in service to U.S. agriculture."

See the full hearing in an archived webcast on the Census of Agriculture.

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