Should farmers be asked about how much they give to charitable organizations? Or to rank on a scale how they access their risk taking tendencies? Members of the House Agriculture Committee think these questions and others included in the census of agriculture survey are an intrusion of the government and lead to lower response rates from farmers.
Joseph Reilly, administrator of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service came under fire Wednesday during a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing.
The Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years, is an important tool used by economists; state, local, and federal policy-makers; financial analysts; and farmers themselves. However, in January 2015, the Agriculture Committee received correspondence from farmers and ranchers concerned that the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) improperly used the Census of Agriculture authority to conduct a mandatory survey entitled Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL). 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 (AELOS), which was traditionally conducted as a follow-on Census of Agriculture survey, and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS III), 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.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.), chairman of the subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture, and research, said, “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.”
During his questioning at the hearing, he noted the initial intent of the 1999 Census of Agriculture was to make sure surveys were “concise, easily readable and relevant” and said the current surveys go beyond the initial intent.
Other members such as Rep. Austin Scott (R., Ga.) and Rep. Ted Yoho (R., Fla.) took aim at specific questions such as ones asking about charitable giving and how if farmers continue to read questions that seem to be offensive to them, they will stop responding.
Reilly defended his actions on questions related to financial matters and risk analysis as to better understand how farmers make their decisions. He noted that 97% of all farms are family-operated farms, but out of the 2.1 million farms, less than half are actually full time farmers or can make a living doing farming full time, Reilly noted. “The off-farm sector and what they do for private employment, benefits and expenses are key to the overall economic picture of the farm,” Reilly testified.
On the landowner side, Reilly also said the switch to mandatory filing was also a way to obtain responses from the increasing number of farm landlords who aren’t operators and not as familiar with the farm operation.
Davis said another hearing may be held on the topic and said he hopes NASS moving forward would use “commonsense” and go back and rework the TOTAL survey. He concluded, “I am personally afraid the response rate will continue to go down when you ask questions that are seemingly absurd to many of us.”