The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun sending the 2017 Census of Agriculture to the nation's farmers.

The census is the country's most comprehensive look at farms in the nation, with a slew of data that includes the number of farms, their size, the types of livestock and commodities they sell and the characteristics of the people who operate them.

The Census is done every five years. This year's results will be released in 2019.

Participation is required by law, and the deadline is next Feb. 5. The census will be mailed in phases throughout December, the government said Tuesday.

Officials at the USDA said they try to make it convenient for those who get the forms. They say people can respond online or by mail.

"We highly recommend the updated online questionnaire," Hubert Hamer, the administrator of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said.

The online questionnaire, Hamer said, now has features like automatic calculations that are aimed at saving time. The questionnaire also is available on mobile and desktop devices.

Changes in this year's form include a question about military veteran status, expanded questions about food marketing status and on-farm decision making.

The agriculture department says it takes about 50 minutes on average to fill out the form, and less if it's done online.

The 2012 census showed that the number of Iowa farms shrunk from 2007 by about 4.7 percent to 88,637, with the number of operations over 1,000 acres growing in number. The number of operations between 180 and 1,000 acres declined.

The agriculture census has been taken since 1840, and the data is collected down to the county level. (For example, there were 759 farms in Scott County with about 220,000 acres in production, in 2012, according to the report.)

The census is being mailed to operations which produced or sold, or normally would have sold, $1,000 or more of agriculture products in 2017. About 3 million forms will be mailed nationwide.

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