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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU's outreach project helping USDA gather more accurate agriculture census

LAS CRUCES - It's time for farmers and ranchers across New Mexico to stand up and be counted.

USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is conducting the 2007 Agriculture Census, which is a process of determining the total number of farms, acreage, crops and livestock, and the market value being produced by the agricultural industry.

"The final publication is the farmers and ranchers story," said Jim Brueggen, director of New Mexico Agricultural Statistics. "If they don't tell their story, who will?"

Edmund Gomez, assistant department head of New Mexico State University's Extension Agriculture Economics department, understands the importance of the agriculture census that is conducted every five years. He serves on the USDA advisory committee for agricultural statistics and has worked with NASS to improve the gathering of the census in New Mexico.

"This is the process that accumulates the data that is used by Congress to write the Farm Bill and in formulas the federal government uses to fund its programs, including the Cooperative Extension Service," Gomez said. "It is important that accurate numbers are gathered so the appropriate funding will be available when the farmers and ranchers need to apply for the various federal programs. It also identifies the areas where agency offices need to be located to provide their services to the agriculture community."

This year Gomez has dedicated the Northern New Mexico Outreach Project staff at Alcalde to help NASS explain to the farmers and ranchers in northern New Mexico why it's important to be counted.

"We have had a major problem in New Mexico with the Native American and Hispanic producers not being counted. There are three reasons for this undercounting: 1) mistrust of the producers regarding how the information would be used, 2) a procedural error with how the Native Americans on reservations were counted, and 3) lack of awareness by USDA that a data collector problem existed," Gomez said.

This year's agriculture census is the first time the individual producers living on the reservations are receiving the census forms. Prior to now, the census procedure was to send one form to each tribe or pueblo instead of to the individuals, so the resulting data was less than the actual number of farmers and ranchers living on the reservations.

"This agriculture census is very historic, just as the 2000 population census was, because this is the first time we have collected data directly from the operators rather than an estimate from the tribes," Brueggen said

He said that after 1997, the advisory committee for agricultural statistics realized there was a problem with Native Americans being represented in the report.

"In 2002 NASS did a special study in three states - North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana - to see what they could do to improve their data gathering on the reservations. From that study they have expanded their efforts to the Southwest Native American tribes and pueblos," Brueggen said.

To help with this process, Gomez's staff has held community meetings to explain the importance of the agriculture census and to answer any questions arising while the producers fill out the form. They are also discussing the confidentiality afforded the census response by federal law.

"We have provided NASS with our data bank of information about who are agriculture producers in northern New Mexico so they can contact them to do the census. We've also helped NASS identify people to be data collectors in the community we felt were under represented, to provide NASS with staff knowledgeable of the area and their neighbors," Gomez said.

While the initial deadline for census forms was to be returned to NASS in February, the gathering of information will continue into May, Brueggen said.

"We are now sending out a second mailing. The next step will be our data collectors visiting the farmers and ranchers who have not returned their forms. We are working diligently to make sure we get the highest percentage of returns as possible so New Mexico farm and ranch data will be as accurate as possible," he said.