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This Week in DC

The Agriculture Department this week releases the eagerly anticipated 2017 Census of Agriculture, which will provide fresh clues to consolidation trends in farming and measure the growth of small-scale and urban production and beginning farmers.
Thursday’s scheduled release of the census, which is conducted every five years, was delayed because of the 35-day government shutdown that started in December and didn’t end until Jan. 25.
“We are excited to get our hands on the data for quite a few things actually,” said Michael Nepveux, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“One key one is what is going on in terms of trends in farm size, to what extent we are going to see a continuation of growth in the larger and medium-large farms.”
On Capitol Hill, the Senate remains deadlocked over a supplemental appropriations bill that would provide as much as $3 billion in agricultural disaster aid.
Senators from disaster-stricken states in the Midwest and Southeast have been holding out hope that the bill could move ahead of the two-week Easter recess, but there was no sign of progress at the end of last week due to an ongoing dispute between Democrats and the White House over aid to Puerto Rico.
Also this week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue makes two trips to the Hill, first on Tuesday to testify before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and then on Thursday before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees. The two panels are responsible for writing USDA’s annual spending bill.
Perdue is certain to get questioned about implementation of the 2018 farm bill as well as about his plan to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a major issue for the chairman of the House panel, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.
A senior USDA adviser, Kristi Boswell, told the panel on May 27 that the department hopes to announce its final site recommendation in early May.
The last Ag Census, conducted in 2012 and released in 2014, showed a 6 percent gain in women farmers and a 2 percent increase in farmers under 35, but the data also showed that consolidation in U.S. agriculture was continuing: 33,330 farms and ranches in 2012, 1.6 percent of the total, accounted for more than half of farm sales that year.
Juli Obudzinski, interim policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, cautioned that the 2017 census could be challenging to compare to previous data because USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has moved away from collecting information on only the farm’s “primary operator” to collect more detailed information on up to four producers.
“If we see an increase in beginning farmers for example, will it be because NASS is actually collecting more data on beginning farmers or because there are more beginning farmers?” she asked.
The Farm Bureau’s Nepveux said he was looking forward to seeing the breakdown of the data at the county and congressional district level. “The census will allow the agricultural community to communicate the benefits that this sector brings to local economies,” he said.
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