Tale of two censuses: One gets axed, Census of Agriculture may get a boost

OTTAWA – In the Conservative government, some censuses get the axe while others are carefully safeguarded.

The mandatory long-form census met its fate last summer because it was deemed too intrusive.

But the mandatory Census of Agriculture was not only left untouched, now the government is considering allowing Statistics Canada automatic access to private income tax returns in order to make filling out the questionnaire more efficient.

All farming households began receiving the 2011 Census of Agriculture along with the short census of population (also mandatory) this May. Another one-third of households also got the voluntary National Household Survey, the replacement for the long-form census.

The agriculture census is a long series of questions that cover everything from number of livestock to the types of insecticides used. The information is used by a wide variety of parties, including federal departments and farmers themselves looking at trends in the agricultural industry.

Data about business income and expenses is one of the longest parts of the survey, and so StatsCan began looking at how to make the process smoother.

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The idea is to automatically link the census document with the business income declaration section of the tax returns filed with the Canada Revenue Agency to get data on operating expenses and sales figures.

Steven Danford, chief of subject matter of the Census of Agriculture, said farmers have been advising Statistics Canada for years to access information directly from the income tax returns. The agency is now in the process of a large-scale feasibility study for the 2016 census.

“That is perhaps the most burdensome part of the questionnaire, it’s not like telling us how many cows you’re milking or how many acres of wheat you have, it’s something where you’ve got to go to your books or go to your accountant sometimes, and get that data and write it down,” said Danford. “It’s not necessarily top of mind for farmers.”

But Ian McKinnon, chair of the National Statistics Council, finds it ironic that the Census of Agriculture was kept intact. Hundreds of organizations, governments and academic appealed unsuccessfully to the government to revive the long-form census.

“What I found paradoxical is that the critics of the mandatory nature of the census often cited response burden, and almost the only witnesses who came forward who discussed response burden or even people who commented publicly, tended to be people who were concerned about the Census of Agriculture and various surveys,” said McKinnon.

During the debate over the long-form questionnaire last year, some Conservatives cited the Census of Agriculture as an example for what was wrong with the entire census process. One right-wing pundit suggested that getting rid of the long-form census would help cut down the size of government because if certain groups weren’t counted, programs wouldn’t be created just to serve them.

Farmer James P. Henderson appeared at a Commons committee to testify he found the census a burden at seeding time. Producers often have a host of other StatsCan surveys to fill out.

“I feel sorry for these guys, because they work like crazy, and then all of a sudden they have to do this,” said Tory MP Randy Hoback during the committee last August.

“If you look at September, we have so many warm, good harvesting days, and sure enough, they want this done on that day when you can be combining. So you basically have to shut down your operations.”

But Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz successfully protected that census, saying it was valuable and only delved into farming information. The threat of fines for not filling it out remains in place.

Ritz was backed by significant voices including the Western Producer publication and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

“As an agricultural example, Canada’s figures on seeded acreage and projected crop production vary little from those of independent sources,” read the Western Producer editorial last summer.

“But in Russia right now, the government report of grain production varies by more than 10 million tonnes from estimates in private trade. This makes it impossible to predict the amount that will be available this year and the price at which it will sell.”

Ann Slater, a vegetable farmer from St. Mary’s, Ont., says she’s happy to fill out the Census of Agriculture even though it comes at a very busy time in the season.

“As a woman farmer, as a small-scale farmer, I find it very important,” Slater said. “The census identifies the demographics of farming…it’s some governmental recognition that women are also farmers.”

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