In the ag census, small farms count

Listen to this story
Click image to view slideshow
Justin Jones hopes to expand his fruit and vegetable farm near Crete, Neb., to three or four acres next year. That may seem small, but his business is part of a trend. The U.S. added 110,000 farms under 50 acres from 2002-07, according to the Census of Agriculture. (Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)
About the author

Grant Gerlock is Harvest Public Media's reporter based at NET News in Lincoln, Neb.

Small farmers, it’s time to be counted.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be sending out its Census of Agriculture, which every five years provides a comprehensive snapshot of farming nationwide, down to the county level.

But small farms are easy to miss — and some would rather not be counted. That can be a problem because census numbers help direct the flow of funding out of Washington and inform policy decisions on things like the farm bill and disaster relief.

The ag census provides one of the few opportunities for following what’s happening with small farms. Dean Groskurth, director of the Nebraska field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the USDA constantly checks in with farmers who raise major commodities like corn, cattle, hogs, and wheat. Specialty crops receive much less attention.

“The good thing about the census is that we can get those commodities that aren’t generally surveyed by each particular state in the country,” Groskurth said.

Small farms, like Jones Produce near Crete in southeastern Nebraska, fly under the radar until they’re counted every five years in the census.

Justin Jones, 34, grows vegetables to sell to a food coop in Lincoln. On a recent cold evening, his hillside farm was bathed in sunlight. Even as winter sets in, Jones was busy planting garlic and harvesting some hearty broccoli still standing after some frosty nights.

“You know there’s still enough sun and the days are warm enough that it’s going,” Jones said as he reached down to pull back the leaves from a dark, green head of broccoli. “Look here’s one almost as big as my hand. That’ll get cut.”

Three years into his new business, Jones fits in with a trend over the past couple ag censuses. An increasing number of small farms have started up to grow food for local consumers. Nebraska added 1,500 farms under 50 acres from 2002 to 2007. Even in that group, Jones would be on the small side.

“Last year I think it was about an acre and a half, total,” Jones said. “And I know that doesn’t sound like very much, but when you grow specialty crops like this or high value crops I guess you might call them, you can actually do pretty well on that much ground.”

Jones might reach three or four acres next year. A quarter-acre of muskmelons. Some potatoes and broccoli. He recently planted some raspberries and hazelnuts.

But for the purposes of the census, little land is necessary. The USDA counts as a farm any place that has the potential to sell more than $1,000 of agricultural products. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the city or the country, on one acre or a thousand.

“They may only have a handful of chickens and maybe a few goats and a few acres of hay,” said Renee Picanso, head of Census and Survey Division at NASS. “We still need to get that data counted.”

Picanso said small farms are harder to track than large row crop operations. The USDA builds lists of names and addresses through farmers markets, community groups, and extension offices. But even when they do receive a questionnaire, Picanso said small farmers are less likely to fill it out.

Judith McGeary believes they have good reason.

“It can get very intrusive when the government wants to know all kinds of things about your farm,” said McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.

The USDA is required by law to protect farmers’ identities, but McGeary, who also raises sheep on a small farm near Austin, Texas, said the small farmers she hears from are still skittish. They feel like questions about the size of their farm, what they grow, how they grow it, and how much money they make are an invasion of privacy.

“I understand the use of the aggregate statistics and you can probably make an argument for any given question why that aggregate statistic could be useful in some context or another, but that’s not much comfort when you’re the individual farmer handing over your information,” McGeary said.

McGeary said she tells members of her group to fill out as much of the census as they’re comfortable with to avoid follow-up mailings and phone calls.

But USDA’s Picanso cautioned against this.  

“If we don’t have the most complete and accurate data, those (policy) decisions are still going to be made,” Picanso said. “They will just be made on data that is not 100 percent complete.”

Three million ag census surveys will be mailed out nationwide starting Dec. 18. Look for the results in early 2014.