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USDA Director: Agriculture Census Important for Black Farmers

King Whetstone stresses the importance of the USDA Census for Farmers. (Shalyn Whetstone)

King Whetstone stresses the importance of the USDA Census for Farmers. (Shalyn Whetstone)

By Stacy M. Brown (NNPA Newswire Contributor)

At first glance, King Whetstone might present an unusual visual.

First, he appears younger than his 40 years—but that’s not why he might stand out. Whetstone once played basketball at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black university and the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Texas, renowned for its engineering and agriculture.

On the basketball court, Whetstone played against such NBA greats as Boston Celtics legend Paul Pierce and helped his team to its only NCAA Tournament appearance in 1998 where they lost to Kansas in the first round.

Instead of competing in the NBA, Whetstone is promoting “National Ag Day”—“Ag” as in Agriculture.

And, he’s also trying to reach out to farmers—particularly minorities—as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) prepare for the Census of Agriculture.

“‘Ag Day’ is a day to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture. Tuesday, March 21 marked the 44th anniversary of ‘Ag Day’ and every year, producers, agricultural associations, corporations, universities, government agencies and others join to recognize the contributions of agriculture,” said Whetstone, the first African-American Northeastern Regional Director of USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), which covers the six New England states, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The theme this year is, “Agriculture: Food for Life.”

While Ag Day tops the current list of priorities, Whetstone and others at the NASS make it clear that the census is the primary focus this year, which counts as a comprehensive summary of agricultural activity for the United States and for each state.

NASS has created a new web form for the census to make it easier for respondents to participate.

It looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures.

By responding, producers are helping themselves, their communities, and all agriculture across the country and they’re also in line to receive various grants and other benefits that might be available for farmers. Officials stress that accuracy in reporting is key.

African-American and other minority farmers are of interest to Whetstone, an African-American who oversees a diverse department of about 45 individuals.

Whetstone said that it’s historically been a tough task getting Blacks and other minority groups to respond, but stresses that it’s a priority.

“Part of my job includes making sure farmers want to respond to our surveys and censuses and that researchers choose to use our data because it is the most accurate and unbiased,” Whetstone said.

In 2012, the census revealed that the number of Black farmers in the U.S. stood at 44,269, a 12 percent increase over the previous survey five years earlier. Although farms with Black operators tend to be smaller than others and with fewer acres and lower sales, Black principal operators sold $846 million of agriculture products in 2012, including $502 million in crop sales and $344 million in livestock while operating 3.6 million acres of farmland.

Still, getting farmers, especially minorities, to respond to the census is important to Whetstone who, despite his hardwood success, has farming in his blood.

Recently, he discovered a World War I draft card of ancestor Neal Whetstone, which listed his occupation as “farmer.”
Whetstone’s paternal grandfather also farmed in Lincoln, Texas and a maternal grandfather, Lafayette Garrett, raised cattle in the south.

Whetstone concluded: “I have found that farmers respond to my agency’s requests for information when they understand how official government statistics help them manage risks, conserve natural resources and promote a healthy agricultural production and marketing system in which they benefit.”

To sign up for the agriculture census, visit https://www.agcensus.usda.gov.

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