By JOHN O'CONNELL
The next national Census of Agriculture will seek more specific data on internet use and alternative energy production on farms, ranches and dairies.
The census is the only survey producers are legally required to complete. It's conducted every five years, with the last census released in 2007.
Donald Buysse, head of the census for USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, said it helps determine emerging issues in agriculture. The last census introduced general questions asking producers if they had internet access or generated any alternative energy.
This year, the questionnaire will be more specific in those areas, asking producers if they use cell phones to access the internet. It will also ask if they lease wind rights on their property, produce biofuels or ethanol, or generate power through methane digesters, solar panels or geothermal exchange systems.
The surveys will be mailed at the end of December and are due back by Feb. 4. USDA, which has conducted the Census of Agriculture since 1997, will spend a year collecting and evaluating data before releasing a report.
Buysse said more than 3 million producers will receive forms. NASS is awarded funding to maintain its census efforts every year and will receive $60 million toward the goal in this production year, he said.
Both the U.S. Potato Board and the National Potato Council offer cell phone applications -- also called "apps" -- to members and are interested in knowing precise data on growers' use of phones to access the internet.
NPC spokesman Mark Szymanski said his organization developed an app last year to provide members general information on its Potato Expo, finding 15-20 percent of them use the tool.
USPB spokesman David Fairbourn said expanding use of the app his organization developed to share news with the industry -- www.uspotatoes.com/smartphone -- will be a top priority this year.
"What we're finding in our experience is farmers are very interested in developing these communication tools and having them accessible in helping them in what they do," Fairbourn said. "This (census) has a real chance to show how forward and technologically aware the U.S. agricultural industry is."
NASS Idaho Field Office Director Vince Matthews said the surveys are 24 pages long, but producers needn't fill out sections that don't pertain to their operations.
The census defines a farm as any operation with more than $1,000 in annual sales. Matthews places the greatest emphasis, however, on getting responses from the largest producers, often sending workers to their facilities in person and making follow-up calls when necessary. He aims for an 80 percent response rate.
Matthews said the census offers data at the local level.
"This is really the only one we have all of that detail down to the county level," Matthews said.
Bruce Eklund, deputy director of Oregon NASS field office, said his office focuses mostly on state-level data, aside from the census.
"At the local level, people always want more data than we can provide. We get so many county-level data requests," Eklund said.