The largest count of farms and farmers since 2012 is underway this month, involving more than 90,000 Minnesota producers and nearly 3 million farmers and ranchers nationwide. The Census of Agriculture is conducted once every five years, and counts everyone from egg producers and corn farmers to those who raise bison or grow hops for beer.

"The census covers virtually every agricultural commodity you can think of," said Dan Lofthus, state statistician for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that collects and crunches the numbers.

The census collects information on 79 field and hay crops, 20 types of floriculture, nursery and Christmas tree production, 56 vegetable, potato and melon crops, 62 fruit, nut and berry crops, nine types of aquaculture, 23 types of poultry, and 12 types of other livestock like bison, alpacas and bees to go along with the more prominent categories of cattle, dairy, hogs, horses, sheep and goats.

And that's just for starters.

The census also counts the number and size of farms, production practices including organics, income and expenditures, farmland values, and the age, sex and other demographics of principal farm or ranch operators.

Information about major crops is collected annually, said Loftus, but the five-year census is the only comprehensive, uniform, authoritative look at all crops and producers. One of its big values is that the data are published at the national, state and county levels, he said. Most of the information will become available in early 2019.

To get all these details, the statistics service sent out questionnaires to farmers in December, and directed them to fill out the forms on paper or online based on the 2017 calendar year and return them by Feb. 5. Farmers are required by law to respond, regardless of the size or type or location of their operation. The census defines a farm as "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year."

The law also requires the statistics service to keep all information confidential, and to use the data only for statistical purposes, and in aggregate form to avoid disclosing the identity of any producer.

The census report form typically takes about 50 minutes for a farmer to complete, officials said, provided they have the relevant financial records and other information nearby.

Kirby Hettver, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said that not all farmers are thrilled with the task of reporting details about themselves and their operations.

"It's one of those things that you wonder what am I doing this for, but good data is essential for so many different aspects of the industry in which we make our living," he said. "It is important to take the time and sit down and fill it out as accurately as possible."

Hettver said that large suppliers of seed, chemicals and fertilizer use census data to modify their marketing strategies. "Especially if they're going to look at building a major plant or warehouse, that would help drive or solidify that decision," Hettver said.

Legislators also use the numbers when shaping farm policies, programs and budgets for crop subsidies and insurance, beginning farmer loans, disaster relief and other programs. Community planners use the information to target needed services to rural residents.

Ground-level data

University of Minnesota Extension Dean Bev Durgan said the five-year census is important because it shows the diversity of agriculture in the state, and is a way to "ground-truth" the number of acres under cultivation and the numbers of animals being raised and processed.

"The census is not just static numbers," she said. "In Minnesota we know that agriculture is changing." For example, more corn and soybeans are being grown in northwest Minnesota than ever before. Other likely changes include more immigrant and more female farmers, more organic operations, and larger farm sizes in at least some counties.

The majority of the census questionnaire is consistent with what was asked and how it was asked in previous census years, so that data from 2017 will be comparable to results in 2012 and 2007, and earlier. New this year are questions about cover crops, military veteran status and expanded questions about food marketing practices.

Durgan said that Extension experts in every county can look at census information for their area to take a broader look at what's happening in that community.

The type of agriculture affects the type of roads and bridges that an area needs, she said, if farmers are moving large amounts of grain or animals. Census data may also help determine whether county commissioners or a local economic development commission might seek to attract certain farm-related businesses to their area, and the repercussions that would follow in terms of additional labor and the impact on school enrollment and other social services.

The census will also likely show that the average age of farmers continues to increase.

"It's an agricultural issue but also a community issue," Durgan said. "As farmers age, there's big issues about farm transfer and what that means if a farm is changing hands or if that farm doesn't stay in agriculture, and how that can affect the tax base in communities."

For Sue Knott, an education specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the census means the chance to update 45 maps, 18 lesson plans and other curricula in the Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom program used by about one-third of the elementary, middle and high schools in the state.

Agriculture is a great model to see where food is raised and an important way to teach geography and other social studies topics, Knott said. It's also used in science and nutrition classes, and older students can use census data to learn about the costs of transporting food and the importance of exports and imports.

Mike Petefish, president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, said that the census is how government keeps track of what's happening with farmers and farmland in America and rural Minnesota. "For a lot of farmers, myself included, our initial reaction is probably not to open up and let everyone in to share all those details," he said.

But Petefish said he encourages all farmers to complete the census, even though it may be uncomfortable or seem unnecessary. Otherwise, decisionmakers will formulate farm policy and pass laws based on artificially high or artificially low numbers, neither of which would be good, he said.

"It's important to get the information right," Petefish said. "We're already a pretty small demographic and we want to make sure that they don't forget us out here."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388