With the deadline to respond to a national Census of Agriculture extended through June 1 due to poor turnout, local officials are urging farmers to submit requested information to help determine needed services and funding for the area.

With the deadline to respond to a national Census of Agriculture extended through June 1 due to poor turnout, local officials are urging farmers to submit requested information to help determine needed services and funding for the area.

Some farmers and animal owners, however, worry providing census information would put them one step closer to a more controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

Local horse owner Sharlyn Homola said she'd seen news reports of state agencies voluntarily providing census data for the animal ID system, a still-voluntary program to microchip livestock in hopes of tracking disease, but worried about additional uses of the trackable data.

"There's a lot of folks that are concerned by the agriculture census because they feel by registering for that census that they will be register for the NAIS against their will," Homola said.

"Personally I don't think the NAIS is going to do anything to protect our food service and I don't understand why the ag census is required for people who simply own a few animals."

At the other end of the debate, farmers like Glenn Archambault of Phoenix, who raises sheep, say the ag census and ID system mirror programs already in place, but provide better technology to prevent disease and protect the nation's food supply.

The ag census, Archambault believes, is anonymous, while the NAIS system has a purpose protecting the nation's food supply to prevent incidences such as tainted beef tracked to a California meat processor. Some of the meat ended up in Oregon, including school lunch programs.

"I think people have forgotten the days where people had the government come in and slaughter herds of cattle — that happened in Jackson County if you look back in history," said Archambault. "It's important to be able to track problems in the food supply before they get out of hand. I think there's nothing real new here. They've been tracking the information for years — now they've just got better tools to track with."

While the animal ID process has been somewhat controversial, Jackson County Extension Service's Phil VanBuskirk said ag census numbers are anonymous, and provide crucial data for determining what types of farm products and livestock are being produced locally and nationally.

Randy White, a local rancher and a resource specialist for the county Soil and Water Conservation District, said the ag census, taken regularly since 1840, is not geared to cause problems for animal owners.

"They've been doing the ag census for years. It goes in to helping determine subsidies and things like that," said White. "As far as the animal ID thing, while you hate having to do it and you feel like Big Brother is looking over you, it's actually intended to help you.

"They're basically just identifying your premises so that, if there's an outbreak, they can trace it back to the source and make sure our food source is as healthy as can be "¦ I'm not sure how folks are confusing the animal ID program and the census."

Jackson County rabbit owner Elaine Ball said she's not convinced the data will be used for limited purposes.

Ball says tracking larger animals would be far more practical than smaller animals that reproduce more often, such as chickens and rabbits.

If tracked, she's in favor of tattoos or bands versus microchips.

"But the bottom line, I think, is this is one more method of keeping tabs on everyone, and I think we've got enough of that already," she said. "If we can tattoo the animals ourselves, which we voluntarily do in the rabbit industry, why waste tax dollars to implement another program?

"I guess what we're saying is that we aren't saying the current system is adequate for animal identification, for food or whatever purpose. But we're saying what they're proposing is far worse."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.