NI agricultural census to go paperless for the first time in 174-year history

Northern Ireland’s Annual Agricultural and Horticultural Census is set to go completely online for the first time in its 174-year history, because of Covid-19.

Department officials say the census, which opens this week, is one of the world’s longest-running surveys having been collated since 1847.

However, 2020 will mark the first year it will be conducted completely paperlessly. The survey also has a short, four-week lifespan with the deadline for completion set for Tuesday, June 30.

‘Quicker and easier’

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots said: “Covid-19 has caused us to rethink how we do things and find new ways of gathering information about the farming sector. Farmers are already under pressure with the current crisis, so in moving the survey online, we aim to make its completion easier and quicker.

The survey has been compiled since 1847, and is an extremely important tool to assess trends across the agriculture and horticulture sectors – including how many people work in the industry, how many livestock there are, where farms are located, how do sub-sectors such dairy, beef, pork, poultry and cereals compare.

“We use all this information to help form many of my department’s decisions and policies on supporting Northern Ireland’s farming industry. It’s therefore very important for people to fill in the survey and help us understand how and where to direct resources.”

The option to fill in the survey online has been available since 2003, but uptake of the online option has been low.

Minister Poots continued: “Last year, only 18% of forms were filled in online.

“Obviously, with the survey going completely online this year, I am encouraging everyone to take the 15-minute survey before the June 30 deadline, and ensure we can capture what’s happening across Northern Ireland.”

Changes for 2020

The 2020 census will see some changes designed to make the survey easier to complete.

As ever, all the information collected during the census will be treated in a completely confidential manner. As an additional security feature within the online format of the survey, each of Northern Ireland’s farm businesses will shortly be provided with a unique five-digit code to safeguard identity when logging into the service.

The questions contained in this census will be very similar to previous years but on this occasion data on crop areas, livestock, labour and cattle will be collated directly by APHIS (Animal Plant Health Information System), so these details don’t need to be completed.

Farmers also make use of the census results to inform themselves about changes in the structure of the agricultural industry. Food processors and suppliers of goods and services to the agricultural industry also make use of the statistics to inform their decisions on capital investment.

Census data also helps assess the impact of farming on the environment. Livestock numbers and land data are used to estimate greenhouse gas emissions for the UK Greenhouse Gas Inventory which monitors changes in emission levels over time.

Errors will be automatically detected on the online census and the digital format will also automatically calculate totals. It also means the results of the census can be processed much faster.

The 2019 survey highlighted some interesting facts:

  • There are 24,827 farm businesses in Northern Ireland;
  • For every person in Northern Ireland, there are 14 chickens, one cow, one sheep and a third of a pig;
  • There are 48,423 farm workers in Northern Ireland (including farmers and their spouses);
  • Most farms involved in livestock production with 93% assigned to a livestock type;
  • 10% were classified as dairy farms and 79% as cattle and sheep farms;
  • Grass accounted for almost 80% of all area farmed.