Opening Statements

Opening Statement: Subcommittee Chairman Davis: Census of Agriculture

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Washington, December 9, 2015 | comments
Remarks as prepared:

Today the subcommittee will begin a public dialogue with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) regarding concerns raised by producers pertaining to a perceived abuse of discretion in conducting the Census of Agriculture.

The Census of Agriculture is conducted every 5 years by NASS, the most recent census being taken in 2012. Data collected from the Census of Agriculture is incredibly important as it provides the only source of consistent, county level statistics on agriculture operations throughout the United States. This data is used to prepare estimates of farm income and production costs, calculate research and extension formula allocations to land grant universities, evaluate agricultural programs and policies, to administer farm programs, and plan for operations during disease or pest emergencies. The Farm Credit Administration also uses the data to evaluate farmer loan programs. It is also intended to assist Congress in considering legislation, most notably the farm bill, and in overseeing farm programs.

Implementation of the 2014 farm bill is particularly data-driven. It cannot be overstated how important it is that farmers have confidence in NASS’ process and participate in the census.
States and local governments, as well as farm organizations use the data collected from the Census of Agriculture to analyze and develop policies on land use, water use and irrigation, rural development, and farmland assessment. Rural electric companies use such statistics to forecast future energy needs.

Prior to 1997, the Census of Agriculture was taken by the Census Bureau, an agency within the Department of Commerce. Following proposals by the Census Bureau to redefine farms solely in order to reduce its own workload and costs involved, the Agriculture Committee determined that it would be in the best interests of all parties to transfer the authority to conduct the Census from the Secretary of Commerce to the Secretary of Agriculture. Legislation was subsequently enacted to transfer the Census of Agriculture to USDA.

When we reported this legislation, Congress was cognizant of the amount of time taken by producers to respond to the Census questionnaire. In the report filed by this Committee, we specifically highlighted these concerns and instructed USDA to ensure that the Census questionnaire would be concise, easily readable and understandable, and relevant to today's agricultural operations.

In fact, Congress specifically instructed the Secretary of Agriculture to “undertake a review of all questions currently asked as a part of the Census of Agriculture to ensure their relevancy.”
In January 2015, the Committee, both majority and minority, were contacted by farmers and ranchers concerned that the NASS improperly used the Census of Agriculture authority to conduct a survey entitled Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL). By invoking the Census authority, NASS rendered the TOTAL survey compulsory.

The farmers and ranchers in touch with the House Agriculture Committee were confounded by the duplicative, intrusive, and overbroad nature of TOTAL. The TOTAL survey inquired about all aspects of an operator’s personal financial portfolio as well as all aspects of farm related income and expenses. We will discuss the specific questions on the TOTAL survey during our question and answer time, but I would like to mention that NASS asked farmers how much they spend on health care and dental visits. You may think those are relevant areas to probe, but then we discovered NASS asked farmers how much they spend on vacations and going to the movies, if that is one’s hobby. If a farmer or rancher ignored the survey, that producer could face a monetary penalty.

The Committee began oversight in February 2015 by requesting briefings by NASS officials and has since reviewed approximately 49,000 documents produced by USDA. Over the course of the Committee’s oversight, it became clear that certain anomalies occurred during the planning and approval phase of the survey. The e-mails produced to the Committee show USDA leadership involvement in the process, which raises questions about the motivations for the compulsory nature of the TOTAL survey. The motivation for conducting TOTAL as a mandatory survey is unclear.

Today we have invited Mr. Joe Reilly, the Administrator of the National Agricultural Statistics Service to help the Committee understand how decisions were made to develop and mandate intrusive survey questions, questions that on their face have little to do with agricultural production. I think it is accurate to point out that these types of questions were certainly never intended by Congress to be included in a mandatory Census of Agriculture. In fact, the instructions Congress gave to USDA at the time the legislation was enacted point out that Congress was specifically concerned about this type of abuse of discretion.

Mr. Reilly, thank you for being here today. It is our hope that you can shed some light on the decision-making process.

I now yield to the Ranking Member, Ms. Delbene for her opening comments.
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