Every month, USDA shares the story of a woman in agriculture who is leading the industry and helping other women succeed along the way. This month, we hear from Barbara Rater from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. This month we’re focusing on the Census of Agriculture, which has been conducted every five years since the mid-1800’s. The Census of Agriculture looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures. For America’s farmers and ranchers, the Census of Agriculture is their voice, their future, and their opportunity.
Why is the census important?
The Census of Agriculture has been conducted every five years since the mid-1800s. It’s the one time producers, policymakers, stakeholders, and the rest of the American public can get a complete picture of the industry. What sets it apart from other NASS surveys is that the census measures and documents change and emerging trends on nearly every facet of American agriculture. Census data are some of the most widely-used statistics in the industry. Over the next few years, 2017 Census of Agriculture data will be considered when making decisions about the Farm Bill, disaster relief, ag research and the development of new technologies, creating and maintaining assistance programs, rural development such as loans and broadband expansion, agribusiness and health clinic setup, ag education in schools, and more. The Census of Agriculture is the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and impartial agricultural data for every state and county in the nation. These data help shape the future of American agriculture, which is why every response matters.
What types of impacts do you think the next round of census data will have on women in agriculture?
Women have worked in agriculture since the beginning of time, not just here in the United States but around the world. The 2012 Census of Agriculture found that nearly 1 million women are farming. This census, we’re going to see some interesting information about the roles of women on farms. What a lot of people don’t know is that NASS regularly edits the census questionnaire to gather as much detailed information as possible. Among other new questions this census are those about on-farm decision-making that will better capture the roles and contributions of women farmers. The hope is that the data will not only educate the public and empower more women to pursue a career in agriculture but encourage support of a vital and growing segment that helps us feed and clothe this country and the world.
What do you see as the future of agriculture, and specifically, women in agriculture?
With the world growing in population, we already know that we will need to produce more food in the very near future. And we have brilliant minds and hardworking hands devoted to that need. I think the traditional view of agriculture is shifting with new research and technological advances. One of those shifts may include seeing more women involved in American agriculture, the 2017 Census of Agriculture will tell. In this country, the average age of our producers is a rising 58 years young. We need the next generation of farmer and rancher and we need her now. In the meantime, producers need not forget that they shape their own futures through surveys and questionnaires like the Census of Agriculture. As the statistical arm of USDA, NASS is data in, data out. There is no agenda, no bias, except to do right by producers by providing complete and accurate data so that informed decisions can be made in support of the industry. Better data mean better decisions. We cannot do that without the producers.
You are involved in the Ag Census—can you share more about your job, your leadership role at NASS and your work on the Census?
In my job today as Director of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Census and Survey Division, my team oversees the data collection process for all our national surveys and the Census of Agriculture. That’s a hefty workload since NASS collects the data for and publishes more than 400 reports every year. Over the last 32 years, my respect and admiration have known no bounds for our hardworking farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness folks who devote their lives to providing this nation and many others with a safe and abundant food supply. I view the census of agriculture and all NASS surveys as a means to give back to and properly represent our farming communities. We will also continue to work with hard-to-reach populations, veteran, and new and beginning farmers and ranchers to determine the need to change or develop programs to help sustain all producers.
When did you first become interested in agriculture and what inspired your career? Can you share your story with us?
I am often asked why I am passionate about agriculture and the importance of our census and survey data. People ask, “Why did you choose a career in agricultural statistics?” Growing up in a military family meant moving a lot, so at an early age I learned that change is inevitable and that to be successful you must be adaptable. I had the opportunity to live in and visit many foreign countries, including countries where safe, abundant food and water were scarce. I chose to work in the field of agricultural statistics because I wanted to help provide a level playing field for everyone through credible, reliable statistics in service to agriculture. In making a career choice, I took my natural aptitude for mathematics and combined it with my passion for service and agriculture.
What is your favorite part of your job?
One of my favorite parts of the job is serving with my fellow USDA employees, whom I recognize as some of the most dedicated individuals in the federal government. Making accurate and timely information available to the public is exactly why I chose a career in agricultural statistics. Seeing the data you have collected making an impact is the best reward you can ask for. As statisticians, my colleagues and I know that people use our data to make important business, policy, and even life decisions. In December 2017, NASS embarked on the largest census effort in USDA history. As a manager and leader, I look for ways to increase productivity by planning and applying certain knowledge and skills to every decision I make.
Have you had any personal or unique challenges as a woman in ag? If so, how were they overcome?
I am proud to part of an organization that celebrates women’s many accomplishments and that marks the power and impact of statistics. After all, only several decades ago, there were virtually no female statisticians, while today, more than half the staff at NASS is female. My career with NASS has been a wonderful journey, filled with constant balancing and re-balancing of family and work. I find that men and women today have a greater understanding of the challenges associated with managing work with family. I owe my success to the incredible support of my husband and family.
Who are your role models? Do you have a mentor?
As a leader, I draw my satisfaction from what I help create and recognize that leadership ultimately comes down to two fundamental things: conversations and connections. To me a good role model is good listener, humble, yet confident. They are not afraid to be different and stand for what they believe. Most importantly, a role model is someone who demonstrates concern and respect for others. Yes, I have a mentor, in fact I have several. I have had good, caring mentors throughout my career, those that have committed themselves to me and my success. Their role has been vital to my success.