Keagan Richardson grabs a handful of squash and other produce that has spoiled as he condenses the displays at Ricker Hill Orchards, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 27, 2022, in Turner, Maine. Credit: Russ Dillingham / AP

The deadline for completing and submitting the 2022 US Department of Agriculture census is next month and time is running out for Mainers with small farms and homesteads to get their forms in.

Every five years with the national census on agriculture, Maine’s small farms and homesteaders can play an important part in shaping policies and programs. The census puts them on equal footing with large commercial farms and agribusiness, and makes sure their needs are not overwhelmed by those larger interests.

It’s easy for those small farmers and homesteaders to downplay their own involvement, according to Angie Considine, survey statistician with the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service’s northeastern field office. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I hear people saying, ‘why should I report if all I have are a couple of goats,” Considine said. “Our data is only as good as the number of people who report and this is the chance for small farms to be heard.”

Without the data supplied by the more than 6,500 farms and homesteads in Maine, state and federal policies could be skewed in favor of larger agricultural or agribusiness interests when it comes to government funding, land use regulations and food safety regulations.

For anyone who sells their crops or livestock either directly from their farm or homestead or at a farmer’s market, the census can be a valuable marketing tool in deciding what sells well in their area. It contains data on specific crops in a state and county including acreage planted, harvested and what it was worth.

Every five years since 1997 the USDA has sent out the census to every farm, homestead or owner of a plot of land that had or had the potential of more than $1,000 in annual sales. It collects data on crops, livestock, demographics and trends.

“The census is the only source of uniform, comprehensive and impartial agriculture data for every state and every county in the nation,” Considine said. “It lets us see what is changing in agriculture and it really influences how decisions are made.”

Considine said the census can look a bit intimidating when it arrives.

“A lot of people see that 25-page form and freak out,” she said. “But if you are a small farm or homesteader with one or two commodities, there is a lot you don’t even have to fill out and it won’t take you that long.”

It’s especially important for small farms to complete and submit the form, Considine said, because the information they provide is going to help create policies and programs to help more small farms stay in business.

“If you look back over the years, it’s the small farms that are disappearing,” she said. “Our small farms are so important.”

According to the 2017 census, Maine lost 500 farms over the preceding five years.

Considine can’t predict what the updated numbers will be. She said data submitted by those small farms and homesteaders is crucial in helping policy makers design programs that can help promote smaller agricultural operations.

Completed census reports should be mailed in, or completed online, by Feb. 6. Anyone who has lost their census form or who wants to  complete it online, may do so but will need the survey code that was mailed with the forms. You can get your code by calling the USDA at 888-424-7828.

“I would love to see the response rate just skyrocket,” Considine said. “That can be hard when people say they don’t matter — but it all matters.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.