Information on the 2012 Census of Agriculture

Several people have contacted us with concerns about the census they have received from the USDA, specifically the National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) division of the agency. Given the instances of government harassment of small farmers, any request by the USDA for people’s information understandably causes concern.

The USDA is required by statute to conduct a census of agriculture every five years. The census covers anyone with a farm, defined as “any place that produced and sold, or normally would produce and sell, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year.” (7 USC section 2204g and 71 Fed. Reg. 7004)

The agency develops its mailing list for the census through a variety of sources, including many private sources that share their information, such as some agricultural-related magazines.

Under federal law, any information provided in response to the survey or census is to be used only for statistical purposes. (7 USC Section 2204g(f)(3)) The USDA will compile the information collected and release statistics on how many people farm, how many acres are in organic production, how many livestock are owned by different size farms, and much more. The information published is not connected to any person’s name or personal information. You can see the results from the last census at www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/Historical_Publications/index.php

On the front of the survey, it states that your responses are required by law. A federal statute requires individuals to respond to questions presented to them as part of the census. The statutory penalty for not responding is a $100 fine, while willfully supplying false information can be fined by up to $500. (7 USC section 2204g(d)) To our knowledge, the USDA has never fined anyone for failing to respond to the census.

Below are three different courses of action in response to the census. This is NOT legal advice. It is provided for your information only, please consult an attorney in your state if you have any legal questions.

1) You can decide not to respond at all. This violates the statute, but USDA has never fined anyone under it. If you don’t respond, you are likely to receive duplicate copies in the mail, a phone call from the USDA, and possibly even an in-person visit.

2) If you do not want to provide any information to the USDA, another option is to send the census form back with a note stating that you decline to respond. Although this also violates the statute, USDA officials have stated that they will drop the matter at that, and they have always done so to date.

3) You can respond by answering whichever questions you are willing to and leave the remaining questions blank. This will allow the information that you’re willing to share to be included in the statistics about farming in our country. Legislators often look to see what sort of farms (if any) are in their districts, so this information has an impact on how elected officials view agricultural issues. These statistics can be important in debates over public policy on agriculture and food.

The regulations governing the NASS are available at www.agcensus.usda.gov/About_the_Census/Regulations_Guiding_NASS/index.php