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Painting American Agriculture by Numbers

Posted by Virginia Harris, National Agricultural Statistics Service in Research and Science
Jul 02, 2013

2013 is the International Year of Statistics. As part of this global event, every month this year USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will profile careers of individuals who are making significant contributions to improve agricultural statistics in the United States.

I arrived at my present position, an agricultural statistician responsible for analyzing demographic data, by a rather circuitous route. I majored in History and German at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I knew I wanted to explore a different society and see another part of the world, so after I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps.  I was stationed in Cameroon for two years. That experience gave me a strong desire to be involved in international development activities. After returning to the United States, I attended graduate school at the University of Illinois and Stanford University, where I obtained degrees in Agricultural Economics. My studies involved several statistics courses, so when my interests turned closer to home, I was able to find a position with the National Agricultural Statistics Service using those skills I had gained along the way.

While one might assume a statistician employed by an agricultural statistics agency would primarily be analyzing data on agricultural products like corn, soybeans, cattle, and chickens, NASS collects hundreds of surveys every year on a huge range of topics relating to farms and how they operate. My specialty area is demographics, the analysis of data relating to a population; in my case, the population is U.S. farmers and ranchers.

My primary work involves the Census of Agriculture, which NASS conducts every five years. This is probably my favorite year in the five year census cycle in my day to day responsibilities. Census forms were mailed out at the beginning of 2013, and we have spent the first six months of the year collecting data. While designing questionnaires and creating data checks is interesting, nothing beats looking at the actual data on the forms sent in. I start to get a real picture in my mind of the producers themselves and the types of farms they operate.

Data collection for the census is now complete, and we are moving on to the analysis phase. The raw data will be summarized at the county, state, and national level, and my fellow statisticians and I will carefully review data at each level of aggregation to ensure the final publication meets NASS quality standards. My focus is the numbers representing the people producing the nation’s food and fiber. What is the average age of a U.S. farmer? In the 2007 Census of Agriculture, that number was 57.1, continuing a decades-long upward trend. Will more farmers retire, or will the average age continue to rise? Women play an increasingly important role in agriculture. How many women farmers will there be in the 2012 Census of Agriculture? How many new farms were formed in the five years since the last census? These are the questions that fascinate me, and will be working for the next several months until NASS publishes the results in early 2014.

Virginia Harris, National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Virginia Harris, National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Category/Topic: Research and Science