Ag Census Offers Journalists Acres of Data

May 8, 2024
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The U.S. government’s census of agriculture is a virtual encyclopedia of open, searchable information about environmental issues. Photo: MPCA Photos via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

Reporter’s Toolbox: Ag Census Offers Journalists Acres of Data

By Joseph A. Davis

The U.S. Census of Agriculture for 2022 (the latest data) is just out. Published only once every five years, its 757 pages offer acres of data useful for environmental journalists.

You may not be interested in how many acres of sorghum are grown. We understand. But this wide-ranging quantitative encyclopedia also answers many questions about environmental issues.

It is open, online and searchable; much of the data is available for download in raw form. You can start exploring the Census of Agriculture here.


Where the data comes from

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a National Agricultural Statistics Service, full of experts on all aspects of agriculture. The NASS surveys all farms and ranches in the United States and uses statistical methods to ensure accuracy.


The geographic resolution of the

data is high — getting down to,

or below, the county level.


The methodology is well documented. The definition of a farm is rather broad. Individual farms are not identified in the published results. The geographic resolution of the data is high — getting down to, or below, the county level.

One feature we like is that you can look at the data by congressional district. Since the ag census began in 1840, it allows you to trace historical (and recent) trends.


How to use the data smartly

You will find more environmental stories by looking at certain specialized features of the ag census. Here are some examples.

  • Irrigation: In much of the arid West, irrigation is essential — especially as the over-allocated Colorado River shrinks with drought.
  • Organic agriculture: Because the USDA now defines and oversees organic agriculture, it is easier to know who is growing what without pesticides, etc.
  • Pesticides: The data includes info on both chemical and nonchemical pest and weed control methods.
  • Fertilizer: The amount of fertilizer applied is usually related to the amount of polluting chemicals and nutrients that create water pollution downstream.
  • Renewable energy: Today, many farmers are sprouting wind turbines on parts of their land.
  • Aquaculture: Whether on dry land or not, aquaculture has become an important source of sustainable protein, and sometimes a source of pollution.
  • Woodlots: Or agroforestry, if you like; trees can be a crop, but are also a carbon storage system that helps the climate.
  • Ownership: An indicator of all kinds of equity issues — whether racial and ethnic minorities, tribal nations or even sharecroppers.
  • Conservation practices: With and without government financial help, farmers often choose to use contour plowing, farm ponds, cover crops, etc.

As always, we advise you to groundtruth everything you can. Do the shoe-leather and onsite reporting to turn your data into a better human story.

[Editor’s Note: For more on covering agriculture as an environmental story, see our Topic on the Beat: Agriculture page, with top agriculture stories from SEJournal and agriculture headlines from EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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