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A census security

Friday, January 11, 2013 - Updated: 5:51 PM

Somehow, without anyone noticing much, the holidays passed and a new year is upon us. During recent cliff-induced midnight oil sessions of Congress, the Farm Bill was extended for a few months, which was probably mostly a good thing. At least it appears that dairy programs will remain more or less unchanged for a while. Some of the modifications to Farm Bill dairy policy that are and have been on the congressional table are at best pretty dubious, including the so-called Dairy Security Act, which was not included in the extension, to the chagrin of co-ops and the delight of farmers.

I have yet to read comments from even a handful of genuine, boots-on-the-ground type dairymen or women who want anything to do with the act. Considering that every economic model I've seen shows that it could lower milk prices at the farm gate under many scenarios, that is not too surprising. Although our current milk pricing model isn't working very well for farmers, nothing indicates that the complex new system would improve things at all.

And although common thought has it that any publicity is good publicity, the furor surrounding the so-called dairy cliff, which many experts say wouldn't have amounted to much, milk consumption declined after the press uproar about the potential for parity pricing. People seem to have decided that even though the possible price spike was averted, and in fact Class III milk at the farm declined by $2 per hundredweight last month, they still aren't going to buy.

Then there is that frightening packet of documents that arrived in the mail box just recently. As soon as I saw the printing on the outside of the envelope I knew I was in trouble.

"Your response is required by law."

Oh, yay, I knew the every-five-years U.S. Census of Agriculture was looming on the horizon, but that doesn't mean that I was happy to see it.

According to folks like Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, "The 2012 Census of Agriculture provides farmers with a powerful voice. The information gathered through the census influences policy decisions that can have a tremendous impact on farmers and their communities for years to come."

You will remember, I'm sure, just a few weeks ago that same gentleman mentioned in a now infamous speech that rural America is, "becoming less and less relevant," so I am inclined to doubt whether he is very sincere about that.

And tradition has it that, despite the recent unpopularity of everything involved in any and all farm programs, the information compiled during the census is used to allocate funds for them. Plenty of National Agricultural Statistics Service data even shows up in the Farm Side over the course of the year.

Thus we opened the packet. Oh, woe, it looked a lot like an income tax booklet with green and white pages, lots and lots of blank spaces waiting to be filled, and an onerous Feb. 4 deadline looming large.

Three of us spent most of a morning just deciding which pages applied to our operation and listing who was going to compile what information. Crops, yields and acreage fall to the fellows, while expenditures and income are more my bailiwick.

The lists were long and intimidating. I saw the words rhizomes and bulbs and corms, and questions about the cost of chicken feed (which in these days of ethanol production ain't chicken feed any more) as well as stuff about landlords and taxes and depreciation schedules.

Nevertheless we soldiered on. The boss got out the little green notebook wherein he maintains his crop and production records. I figured on waiting until the house was quiet to do my share.

On Monday I ventured carefully into the Siberian cold and Stygian darkness of the farm office. It is an inhospitable land, much resembling the dungeons of old. Though it has no rack or iron maiden, the elderly computer loaded with farm bookkeeping software represents torture enough for me.

In no time at all I arrived at a question requiring that I come up with the worth of every single implement and tool on the place. This should include milking equipment, hay elevators and tractors, as well as everything in between.

Say what? We have a mind-boggling assortment of oddments with which we extract milk from cows, supply feed to them, remove the byproducts of said activities, as well as growing their food and harvesting same. I was supposed to list all those objects in my already cluttered brain and assign values to them?

I think not. So, I did what I had wanted to do ever since the packet arrived and called the help number. After all misery loves company and if you have to do a miserable job, you might as well at least have the fun of grousing about it. The nice lady who gets paid to answer aggravated farmers' questions about the census said that I should just use my best guess. Failing that, I should just write, "Don't know," in the green part of the page.

Hallelujah. Thus freed from the constraints of actually having to come up with meaningful data, I took the packet of questions into the cave of numeric torments and fell to finding reports. It was easy enough to come up with calves sold, cows ditto, and the price of doing repairs. When I came to a question requiring weeks of data-mining for dubious documentation, I guessed my little heart out, or printed "I don't know." If the latter was dug into the page a little deeply and the ink was kinda dark, well, so is the office and cold to boot.

In no time at all, or at least not much time compared to what it would have taken had I broken out every nickel addressed to insurance, animal medicines, and such, I was finished and ready to get that puppy mailed. Now we will only have to wait until 2014 to see the results.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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