What’s the real purpose of the agriculture census?

By Ryan Parker, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 17, 2013, at 3:53 p.m.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently conducting the Census of Agriculture, which occurs every five years. If you eat, this affects you profoundly, and you might want to pay attention to the results, especially because of the inaccuracy of the data and how it affects national policy.

The secretary of agriculture is authorized by Title 7, Chapter 55, Section 2204g of the U.S. Code to conduct the Census of Agriculture. Each farmer receives a letter that reads like a scene from “Atlas Shrugged.” It includes imposing statements such as, “Your response is required by law,” along with conciliatory statements, such as, “This is your opportunity to speak out and make a positive impact,” and pleasantries such as, “Thank you for helping to provide a complete, accurate and timely 2012 Census.”

Farmers received a postcard three weeks before the reporting deadline as a “reminder” that a response to the “request” is required by law, and failure to respond will result in calls or personal visits. According to the 2007 agricultural census there are 2,204,792 farms in the U.S. Quick math reveals the number of tax dollars spent to send out a redundant postcard at $.32 each.

Along with barely veiled threats, the postcard mentions that the census results are used to make policy decisions. While not technically lying, neither is the USDA being truthful. One might read the statement as saying that the results have a proportional effect on policy decisions. There are decades of evidence to the contrary. For example, there has been a growing trend that new farmers are increasingly young women, but the department has done little to promote this or assist young women in ways specific to their needs.

Also, the USDA has bucked the trend of growing interest in organic production despite overwhelming support from the public and farmer’s willingness to switch to organic for both ethical and economic reasons.

Organic has been the fastest growing sector of the food market (especially regarding fresh fruits and vegetables) for many years, yet the resources put into organic food production have been, and remain, insignificant.

Recently, local and what is called “direct to consumer” sales have surpassed organic as the fastest growing sector of the food market. This includes community supported agriculture, farmers markets and on-site farm stands. Again, no shift in resources to promote this or even educate the public that such options exist.

The USDA and other agencies regulating agriculture and food have been unwavering in policy despite trends in the census, public feedback about proposed regulations, polling, market forces and the whims of other countries. Nor even are they swayed when the secretary of agriculture is booed by PhD experts.

Considering the tax dollars spent to gather the information, why ignore it in making policy that affects our food, agricultural land, trade and more?

U.S. farmers have a long history of independent sentiment. After years of policy and regulations in opposition to local needs, market forces, environmental considerations and, yes, census data, farmers and their communities are pushing back on issues of food sovereignty, the right

of private contract and other legalities.

Many of these efforts are being pushed at the state level or through community ordinances, shutting the federal government out of local decisions and transactions. There are also acts of civil disobedience everyday. Farmers who refuse or “willfully neglect” to answer a census question face fines of up to $100. Thus, not complying with the census is an act of civil disobedience.

Some farmers refuse to comply with the census. Why?

I believe the agriculture census exceeds the authority in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. It states that the government shall have the authority to conduct a census only for the purpose of determining representation in the House. Second, the census infringes the constitutionally implied right to privacy.

Also, with a sudden escalation in the last five years, the federal government has been writing regulations to make illegal the traditional farming practices that have served humanity well for 12,000 years of agricultural history: slaughtering and processing animals outside on the farm by the person who raised them, milking cows by hand and consuming the milk raw (pasteurization wasn’t invented until 1862, but humans have been consuming raw milk since the first genes mutated to allow it about 7,000 years ago).

Federal and state officials have been raiding food co-ops and the homes of farmers and their customers in full S.W.A.T. gear with guns drawn. USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently proposed ideas that approach science fiction. The USDA nearly secreted through a regulation that would have forced every farmer with any livestock to implant a registered microchip into the animal.

This insanity has many farmers terrified. If you own a few hens and grow some tomatoes in the backyard and sell them to your neighbors, the USDA wants to know. Perhaps you don’t think a government agency has the right to this information. If your only choices are to ignore the census and face prosecution or answer and have some microchips show up at your door with an Ayn Randian postcard, is that really a choice?

These policies are well past encroachment upon the personal freedoms of a few farmers. Indeed, for the first time in the poll’s history the Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans believe the federal government is a threat to their personal rights. No wonder. You, the consumer, no longer have a choice about what’s on your family’s plates. The FDA recently argued in federal court that “there is no absolute right to consume or feed children any particular kind of food.” Meanwhile, the agency is set to approve unlabeled, genetically modified salmon despite overwhelming opposition.

Eat up.

Ryan Parker is a former staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as a constituent services representative for Rep. Mike Michaud’s office. He is currently a writer and microscale, diversified family farmer in central Maine.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/17/opinion/whats-the-real-purpose-of-the-agriculture-census/ printed on September 2, 2014