As the head of USDA’s statistical agency, I know that comprehensive, accurate and timely statistical data are some of the most valuable tools in helping to “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” The statistics collected and published by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) help tell the story of American agriculture – what’s being grown, where it’s being grown, who’s growing it, what the economic impact is, and how these things are changing and evolving over time.
Our oldest and largest data collection program is the Census of Agriculture. This comprehensive look at the farm sector is conducted every five years – most recently in 2007 – and it provides detailed information on U.S. farms and farmers all the way down to the county level. In addition, NASS tabulates key census data by various other geographical and political designations, including watersheds, congressional districts and American Indian reservations.
Census data are a tool used by those who provide services to farmers and rural communities, including federal, state and local governments, agribusinesses, and many others. They’re used at the local level to make decisions about many things that directly impact farmers and rural communities, including local services and infrastructure, store/company locations, funding availability, location of businesses and government offices, and farm programs and policies. You can see trends over time such as the number and size of farms (both small and very large are increasing), the characteristics of farm operators (becoming more diverse) and production and marketing practices such as organic farming, value-adding, and Internet use (all increasing).
Census information can also be used by anyone who wants to know more about what’s going on with agriculture at the local level. For instance, my family and I live just outside the nation’s capital, in the heavily populated Fairfax County, Virginia, which still has 166 farms and more than 7000 acres of farmland that produced nearly $2 million in agricultural products during the most recent census year. Principal farm operators in my county tend to be a little older than the national average (58.7 years vs. 57.1 nationally) and more of them are women –almost 35%, compared to 14% nationally.