Before it gets covered up by stacks of Christmas catalogs, junk mail of one kind or another and unread newspapers, take a little time to fill out the 2002 Census of Agriculture questionnaire and get it back to your state Agricultural Statistics Service.

“It's important to provide this information and get it back to us,” says Robin Roark, director of the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service, TASS.

“We conduct a census every five years to provide a complete picture of U.S. farms and ranches. We collect data on commodities, production practices and demographics of farm families.”

Roark outlined the procedure and emphasized the importance of participating in the census at the Texas Commodity Symposium recently in Amarillo. He said USDA and state governments use census data to develop farm programs, project research needs and evaluate market strategies.

“This is the best way to analyze farms and ranches of all sizes across the country,” Roark said. “Legislators base decisions on scientific data collected from these questionnaires.

“Water issues, for instance, interest most Southwestern legislators, and this survey collects a lot of information about irrigation needs.”

The census also includes updates on chemical use, crop selections, land use and ownership and market values.

“We've changed the demographic information this year,' Roark said, “to include up to three operators. In the past, each farm reported only one operator.”

He said that system did not account for a father and son who farmed together or for a spouse involved in the business.

“This information may alter the average age of farmers,” he said, “since we'll include more operators.”

Roark also emphasized the confidentiality of the survey. “We guarantee confidentiality, not just because I say so, but because it's protected by law,” he said.

Early response also helps. “The first mailing went out December 16,” Roark said. “Deadline for return is Feb. 3, 2003. Results will be available Feb. 3, 2004.”

Respondents who do not turn in surveys by the first deadline will receive two additional mail-outs.

“Then we make phone calls to get the information and then we knock on doors,” Roark said. “But it saves us a lot of money if farmers and ranchers turn in the first mail-out. We expect to spend $500,000 in Texas on follow-up mailings, calls and visits.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com