There are more than 3 million farmers in the U.S. and very soon they will be asked to accomplish a very important task: fill out the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
The 24-page document should arrive in mailboxes in early January.
Similar to the U.S. Census, the agriculture census collects a mountain of data that is used to help shape farm policy, influence investment decisions and target services in rural communities.
"This is the most comprehensive set of data there is about agriculture," said Vic Tolomeo, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service, California Field Office. "And it allows local communities to show how important agriculture is in their local areas."
Tolomeo says the data can yield critical information to food-processing companies looking to expand. And it helps show lawmakers, who are responsible for funding programs through the Farm Bill, how valuable the speciality crop industry is in California.
The agriculture census is done every five years and compiles data on nearly every facet of farming, including the number of farms, market value of crops, production costs and demographic information.
The confidential forms must be submitted by Feb. 4. The final numbers will be published online in February 2014.
Tolomeo says that along with providing valuable information for legislators and companies, the census spotlights ongoing trends in farming and can reveal new ones.
One recent trend is the growing number of farms.
Previous census figures show that the number of farms in California grew from 79,631 in 2002 to 81,033 in 2007, with much of that growth coming from small farms.
From 2002 to 2007, the largest rate of growth -- 8.5 percent -- came from farms of 49 acres or less.
Tolomeo expects that trend to continue. Also likely an ongoing issue is the high cost of production. From 2002 to 2007, the cost of fuel, feed and fertilizer nearly doubled.
"We saw tremendous price increases in feed and corn grains and that will be reflected in the census," Tolomeo said. "It had a significant impact on the livestock industry."
Previous census data reveal that nationwide, farmers are getting older and becoming more diverse. The average age of farmers in the 2007 census was 57 years old, up from 55 years old in 2002. Also, the number of farmers of Hispanic origin increased 10 percent since 2002 and the number of female farmers increased 30 percent since 2002.
To help get the word out about the 2012 census, the USDA has begun airing public service announcements on radio and reaching out to farm industry groups. The USDA is allowing farmers to file their census forms online at www.agcensus.usda.gov.
"As more and more people get access to the Internet, they are almost demanding that they be given the ability to file online," Tolomeo said.
Farmer Tom Willey, of T & D Willey Farms in Madera, said he has received his form and plans to fill it out soon.
"I think the data can be valuable to government and to society," Willey said.