Farmers and ranchers across America should be in possession of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) five-year agriculture census form, mailed out to ag producers of all fifty states beginning earlier this month. According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the census is a complete count of all U.S. farms and ranches of all shapes and sizes, as well as the people who operate them, and an important instrument in helping shape U.S. agriculture policy in the years ahead.

The agriculture census looks at land use and ownership, demographics, production practices, income, expenditures and other topics. The data is often used by legislators when shaping farm policy, and agribusinesses factor it into their planning efforts.

Because of severe drought conditions across the Southwest, officials in Texas and New Mexico are urging producers to participate in this year’s census. New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte says this year's census is especially important.

"This year's census is very important, given the toll that drought and the high cost of inputs have imposed on the state's farmers and ranchers over the last few years," said Witte. "That's all the more reason for the state's agricultural producers to be counted, so we get an accurate snapshot of agriculture."

The last Census of Agriculture was conducted in 2007 and showed that almost 21,000 farms and ranches in New Mexico reporting over 43 million acres. The 2007 count was 38 percent more than the previous census in 2002 as more producers realize the importance of completing the census. The average age of New Mexico's farm and ranch operators in 2007 was 59.6 years old, compared to 56.4 years in 2002. This telling information and thousands of other statistics are only available every five years as a direct result of farmer and ranchers responses to the census.

In Texas, fewer acres of farm and ranch land are reported each year.Texas leads the country in privately-owned lands, however, according to the recent Texas Land Trends survey from the American Farmland Trust and the Institute for Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR) at Texas A&M University. The survey shows the Lone Star State has 142 million acres of farm, ranch and timberlands, but is losing 1.5 million acres of agricultural land every 10 years.

Meanwhile, growers are doing more with less and countless businesses have sprung up to import and distribute produce from Mexico. Much of that product flows through Texas before reaching consumers in the rest of the country and Canada.

The census remains the only source of uniform, comprehensive agricultural data for every county in the nation," says Longino Bustillos, acting director of National Agricultural Statistics Service's New Mexico Field Office. "It's a critical tool that gives farmers and ranchers a voice to influence decisions that will shape the future of their community, industry, and operation."

The ag census is especially important for following what’s happening with small farms. Dean Groskurth with the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), said the USDA constantly checks in with farmers who raise major commodities like corn, cattle, hogs, and wheat. Specialty crops receive much less attention.

“The good thing about the census is that we can get those commodities that aren’t generally surveyed by each particular state in the country,” said Groskurth.

Small farms often fly under the radar until they’re counted every five years in the census.

Completed forms are due to the USDA by February 4, 2013. Farmers and ranchers can fill out the census online via a secure website, www.agcensus.usda.gov, or return their form by mail. Federal law requires all agricultural producers to participate in the census and requires the Statistics Service to keep all individual information confidential.

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is reminding farmers to complete and return their agricultural census form as soon as possible.

For more information about the Census, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov or call 1-888-424-7828.