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Five years ago, the U.S. Census of Agriculture revealed that the number of black farmers stood at 44,269, a 12 percent increase over the previous survey five years earlier.
Nationally, black farmers made up 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.2 million farmers, while 33,371 African-Americans counted as principal operators — the individual in charge of the farm’s day-to-day operations — a nine percent increase over the previous census while principal operators of all farms declined by four percent.
Although farms with black operators tend to be smaller than others and with fewer acres and lower sales, black principal operators sold $846 million of agriculture products in 2012, including $502 million in crop sales and $344 million in livestock while operating 3.6 million acres of farmland.
Today, as officials prepare for the current census, King Whetstone, the first African-American Northeastern Regional Director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), said it’s imperative that all farmers, including blacks, respond.
Whetstone, who oversees Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware and the six New England states, said the census counts as a comprehensive summary of agricultural activity for the United States and for each state.
It includes the number of farms by size and type, inventory and values for crops and livestock, operator characteristics and other analyses.
“It’s a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them,” said Whetstone, a Greenville, Texas, native who has spent more than 20 years at the USDA in various locations including in New York, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Arkansas and D.C.
He now lives in Pennsylvania with his wife of 15 years, April, and daughter, Shalyn.
Whetstone said even on small plots of land — whether rural or urban — growing fruit, vegetables or some food animals count during the census if $1,000 or more of those products have been raised and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.
NASS has created a new online form for the census to make it easier for respondents to participate. Also, mailings, telephone calls and other forms of contacting farmers are planned for the census, taken every five years. It looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures.
“Our goal is to make sure that we have a complete count,” Whetstone said. “The census [data] is used to help shape the future of agriculture now and in the years to come, so farmers are helping themselves by participating.”
Through the census, producers can show the nation the value and importance of agriculture, and they can help influence the decisions that will shape the future of American agriculture for years to come, according to the USDA.
By responding, producers are helping themselves, their communities, and all agriculture across the country and they’re also in line to receive various grants and other benefits that might be available for farmers. Officials stress that accuracy in reporting is key.
Historically, it’s been a tough task getting blacks and other minority groups to respond, but Whetstone said it’s vital that all reply.
“Part of my job includes making sure farmers want to respond to our surveys and censuses and that researchers choose to use our data because it is the most accurate and unbiased,” he said.
Also, it’s kind of personal.
Recently, Whetstone discovered a World War I draft card of ancestor Neal Whetstone which listed his occupation as “farmer.”
Whetstone’s paternal grandfather also farmed in Lincoln, Texas, and a maternal grandfather, Lafayette Garrett, raised cattle in the south.
“I’m the grandson of a cattle rancher so intrepid that even after my then-70-something-year-old grandfather was kicked by a horse, he continued to ranch,” Whetstone said. “I like to think I’ve inherited that tenacious nature and apply it to everything I do, even building awareness of the relevance of agricultural statistics.
“I have found that farmers respond to my agency’s requests for information when they understand how official government statistics help them manage risks, conserve natural resources and promote a healthy agricultural production and marketing system in which they benefit,” he said.
To sign up for the census, visit https://www.agcensus.usda.gov.