Ag producers raising questions about survey

Many Montezuma County farmers and ranchers recently received the “2006 Agricultural Identification Survey” from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. It is a detailed questionnaire with 22 multiple- choice questions: What acreage do you own, rent or use rent-free; what crops do you grow, to 1/10 of an acre; what kinds and how many animals do you raise; what labor do you hire and how much money do you make? The degree of detail has caused some wags to name the survey “No Chicken Left Behind.”

Agricultural surveys are done routinely. “Statistics like this are useful in showing the economic importance of agriculture and in writing legislation, such as the Farm Bill, now in progress,” said Tom Hooten, extension agent with the Colorado Extension Service in Montezuma County.

But this survey is different. It was authorized by a 1997 law enacted to relieve the Census Bureau of the increasing burden of collecting farm data by transferring the job to the USDA. As part of the census, answers can be legally required. Thus the warning, “Response to this survey is legally required by Title 7, U.S. Code.” A $100 fine for not returning it (or a $500 fine for falsification) backs that requirement up.

But according to the 1997 law, the Agricultural Survey was to be taken in 1998 and every five years thereafter, which makes this form either two years too early or three years too late.

Some find the timing suspicious, coming on the heels of the furor over the proposed USDA National Animal Identification System [Free Press, November 2006]. This January had been the intended deadline for premise registration, before the program became voluntary in 2006 as a result of pressure from farmers and ranchers. (This registration by those who sell livestock or poultry is handled by the state government for the USDA with each “premise” given a 15-digit number. Animals are tagged individually with an eight-digit number. All the information goes into a national data bank so that sales and animal movement can be tracked.)

The NAIS program is unpopular in the Four Corners, to say the least. Many producers say it will put many small farmers out of business if they are forced to deal with different types of tags to identify different livestock species. Many producers worry about the loss of privacy as well; the premise registration, which requires either GPS coordinates or address, is particularly unpopular.

Michelle Martz of Cahone, Colo., who is with Montelores Free Farmers, commented, “I’m suspicious that this survey, asking for a lot of the same data that NAIS wants, is just a legal way of getting the numbers for an unpopular ‘voluntary’ program. The NAIS has used data from its sister agency, NASS, in the past.”

Although the recipient is reassured on the form that “your individual answers are kept completely confidential and will not be provided to any individual or organization,” it is not clear that a list of, say, cattle owners could not be compiled and shared with the NAIS.

If the threat of legal action for nonreturn seems heavy-handed, the compilation of agricultural addresses in Montezuma County seems inefficient, having missed many substantial acreages. Apparently county land records, although public and computerized, were not used.

Meanwhile, many city dwellers who subscribe to ag journals have reportedly received forms and are calling the 1- 888-424-7828 information number to inquire why they are considered farmers.

On the other hand, Phyllis Snyder, who with her husband raises cattle in Montezuma County, said, “They do surveys all the time. It’s nothing to worry about.”

So perhaps the timing of the mailing was just an unfortunate coincidence.

Are there any likely consequences to the non-compliant? Possibly a followup call from a survey worker, or, at worst, a $100 fine, which some regard as the price of keeping the federal government out of their business.

From -February 2007.