ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Just as the crush of Christmas cards and holiday packages in the mail dwindles, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is gearing up to send census forms to millions of farmers and ranchers nationwide.
The forms will be mailed Friday and should hit mailboxes next week.
Federal officials are imploring farmers and ranchers to fill out the forms so they can check ``the heartbeat of agriculture,'' said Jim Brueggen, head of the New Mexico field office of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
``Bottom line is, if they want to have a voice in their future, here it is. It is that report,'' he said. ``Complete it, get it in and get your message in there.''
The agriculture census is taken every five years, and the data collected plays a key role in the development of the farm bill and other federal policy. It also can lead to changes in the marketplace and affect the business decisions of farmers and ranchers.
Brueggen has spent countless days this fall trying to get out the word about the census to as many New Mexico farmers and ranchers as possible. His counterparts in other states have been doing the same.
Completed forms are due by Feb. 4, 2008 _ via mail or online.
The census looks at everything from production numbers for 2007 and the age of a farmer's equipment to whether farmers and ranchers have to hold down second jobs.
``What is their situation? If they're struggling, what are the issues that need to be addressed?'' said Brueggen, who has worked for the agency for more than three decades.
The USDA says the census is the responsibility of all farmers and ranchers, regardless of the size or type of their operations. The agency considers a farm or ranch any place that normally produces or sells $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the census year.
The last census, in 2002, has been criticized by some for undercounting minorities, including American Indians. Reservations, for example, were historically reported as single entities for agricultural production. As a result, thousands of farms and ranches weren't counted, Brueggen said.
He said the agency has been working with tribes to get a more accurate count this time.
Brueggen has visited the Navajo Nation, the country's largest Indian reservation, to promote the census, and workers will traverse the reservation to help with the count.
Audie Greybear, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation's Division of Community Development, said the tribe's chapters will help census workers locate the many farmers and ranchers who operate on the sprawling reservation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
He estimated there are tens of thousands of Navajos who grow crops and raise livestock.
``That's why they want to do a more detailed count so that really when it comes down to funding agencies at the national level, they'll see that it's not just one giant commodity,'' Greybear said.
Brueggen also is working with a Hispanic agriculture organization in southern New Mexico to ensure that Hispanics take part in the census.
``We are trying to make sure we get everyone included,'' he said. ``And this is an effort all across the United States.''