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NASS Commissions Panel to Improve Census Count

1 June 2015 No Comment
Jamie Nunnelly, Communications Director, National Institute of Statistical Sciences and Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute

Expert Panelists

Norman Bradburn, NORC at the University of Chicago
Fred Conrad, University of Michigan/JPSM
John Eltinge, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Danny Klinefelter, Texas A&M and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Jim MacDonald, USDA/ERS
Doris Mold, American Agri-Women
Eileen O’Brien, U.S. Energy Information Administration
Alicia Robb, Kaufman Foundation
Nora Cate Schaeffer, University of Wisconsin
Brian Schilling, Rutgers, New Jersey Ag Experiment Station
Nell Sedransk, NISS and North Carolina State University (chair)
Rick Valliant, University of Maryland/JPSM
Diane Willimack, U.S. Census Bureau
Anthony Yeboah, North Carolina A&T

Every five years, the U.S. Census of Agriculture enumerates the characteristics of farms and farmers, and planning is underway for the 2017 census. To ensure it does not systematically miss women or new/beginning farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) called for an expert panel review and invited public comment. The National Institute of Statistical Sciences (NISS) was commissioned to convene the panel, whose members had a broad range of expertise that included statistics, social science, and agriculture. The panel was charged with considering changes to the census questionnaire that would lead to improved accuracy of counts of women and new/beginning farmers for the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Members of the expert panel met from April 2–3 at the USDA in Washington, DC. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden discussed the importance of accurately representing these two groups. Specific charges to the expert panel were the following:

  • Do the items currently being reported in the Census of Agriculture adequately capture the participation of women and new/beginning farmers?
  • With the data currently being collected, what additional information could/should be reported?
  • Do these items fully meet the needs of stakeholders? If not, what information should be reported?

Reasons women and new/beginning farmers are particularly vulnerable to undercount are multiple and differ for the two groups. In the case of new/beginning farmers (those who have farmed for fewer than 10 years), they are often too new to appear in the list frame, or sometimes fail to recognize themselves as “farmers” when the operation is small or a sideline effort. Also small new farms, like other small businesses, often go in and out of business too rapidly to be counted in an every-five-year census.

The vast majority of farms in the United States are family farms, ranging in size from tiny to multi-million-dollar operations. The family farm culture often persists in identifying the family patriarch as the principal operator, whether he is working or retired, whether he still lives on the farm or has moved away. Space on the form is limited, so even when a woman fills out the census form, she may not self-identify as one of the farm operators.

Farming requires running the business and taking care of crops and managing livestock. Actually, the definition of “farmer” is based on having responsibility for major farm operation decisions. Even though not all important decisions are made in the fields or barns and pens, a farm woman who is in charge of the business activities may be overlooked in designating the “farm operators.”

NASS provided extensive background information on the Census of Agriculture and Agricultural Resource Management Survey (an annual USDA survey with more comprehensive data for a sample of farming operations), as well as agriculture census and survey questionnaires from Canada and Europe.

The expert panel’s report will be published this fall. NASS expects to incorporate the recommendations that are feasible into the planning and implementation of the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

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