Agriculture in the United States
Agriculture is a major industry in the United States, which is a net exporter of food. As of the 2007 census of agriculture, there were 2.2 million farms, covering an area of 922 million acres (3,730,000 km2), an average of 418 acres (169 hectares) per farm.
Although agricultural activity occurs in every state in the union, it is particularly concentrated in the Great Plains, a vast expanse of flat, arable land in the center of the nation in the region west of the Great Lakes and east of the Rocky Mountains. The eastern, wetter half is a major corn and soybean producing region known as the Corn Belt, while the western, drier half is known as the Wheat Belt for its high rate of wheat production. The Central Valley of California, produces fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The American South has historically been a large producer of cotton, tobacco, and rice, but it has declined in agricultural production over the past century.
The U.S. has led developments in seed improvement, such as hybridization, and in expanding uses for crops from the work of George Washington Carver to bioplastics and biofuels. The mechanization of farming and intensive farming have been major themes in U.S. history, including John Deere's steel plow, Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper, Eli Whitney's cotton gin, and the widespread success of the Fordson tractor and the combine harvester. Modern agriculture in the U.S. ranges from hobby farms and small-scale producers to large commercial farms covering thousands of acres of cropland or rangeland.
Colonists had more access to land in the colonial United States than they did in Europe. The organization of labor was complex including free persons, slaves and indentured servants depending on the regions where either slaves or poor landless laborers were available to work on family farms.
European agricultural practices greatly affected the New England landscape. Colonists brought livestock over from Europe which caused many changes to the land. Grazing animals required a lot of land and food and the act of grazing itself destroyed native grasses, which were being replaced by European species. New species of weeds were introduced and began to thrive as they were capable of withstanding the grazing of animals, whereas native species could not.
The practices associated with keeping livestock also contributed to the deterioration of the forests and fields. Colonists would cut down the trees and then allow their cattle and livestock to graze freely in the forest and never plant more trees. The animals trampled and tore up the ground so much as to cause long-term destruction and damage.
Soil exhaustion was a huge problem in New England agriculture. Farming with oxen did allow the colonist to farm more land but it increased erosion and decreased soil fertility. This was due to deeper plow cuts in the soil that allowed the soil more contact with oxygen causing nutrient depletion. In grazing fields, the large number of cattle in the New England, the soil was being compacted by the cattle and this did not give the soil enough oxygen to sustain life.
In the United States, farms spread from the colonies westward along with the settlers. In cooler regions, wheat was often the crop of choice when lands were newly settled, leading to a "wheat frontier" that moved westward over the course of years. Also very common in the antebellum Midwest was farming corn while raising hogs, complementing each other especially since it was difficult to get grain to market before the canals and railroads. After the "wheat frontier" had passed through an area, more diversified farms including dairy cattle generally took its place. Warmer regions saw plantings of cotton and herds of beef cattle. In the early colonial south, raising tobacco and cotton was common, especially through the use of slave labor until the Civil War. In the northeast, slaves were used in agriculture until the early 19th century. In the Midwest, slavery was prohibited by the Freedom Ordinance of 1787.
The introduction and broad adoption of scientific agriculture since the mid-19th century contributed to economic growth in the United States. This development was facilitated by the Morrill Act and the Hatch Act of 1887 which established in each state a land-grant university (with a mission to teach and study agriculture) and a federally funded system of agricultural experiment stations and cooperative extension networks which place extension agents in each state.
Soybeans were not widely cultivated in the United States until the early 1930s, and by 1942 it became the world's largest soybean producer, due in part to World War II and the "need for domestic sources of fats, oils, and meal". Between 1930 and 1942, the United States' share of world soybean production grew from 3% to 47%, and by 1969 it had risen to 76%. By 1973 soybeans were the United States' "number one cash crop, and leading export commodity, ahead of both wheat and corn".
Significant areas of farmland were abandoned during the Great Depression and incorporated into nascent national forests. Later, "Sodbuster" and "Swampbuster" restrictions written into federal farm programs starting in the 1970s reversed a decades-long trend of habitat destruction that began in 1942 when farmers were encouraged to plant all possible land in support of the war effort. In the United States, federal programs administered through local Soil and Water Conservation Districts provide technical assistance and partial funding to farmers who wish to implement management practices to conserve soil and limit erosion and floods.
Scholarship has shown that farmers in the early United States were open to planting new crops, raising new animals and adopting new innovations as increased agricultural productivity in turn increased the demand for shipping services, containers, credit, storage, and the like.
Major agricultural products
|Millions of Tonnes in||2003||2013|
|Cow's milk, whole, fresh||77.0||91.0|
The only other crops to ever appear in the top 20 in the last 40 years were, commonly: tobacco, barley, and oats, and, rarely: peanuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds. Alfalfa and hay would both be in the top ten in 2003 if they were tracked by FAO.
Value of production
|Major Crops in the U.S.||1997
(in US$ billions)
(in US$ billions)
|Source||1997 USDA – NASS reports,||2015 USDA-NASS reports,|
Note alfalfa and hay are not tracked by the FAO and the production of tobacco in the United States has fallen 60% between 1997 and 2003.
Heavily mechanized, U.S. agriculture has a high yield relative to other countries. As of 2004:
- Corn for grain, average of 160.4 bushels harvested per acre (10.07 t/ha)
- Soybean for beans, average of 42.5 bushels harvested per acre (2.86 t/ha)
- Wheat, average of 43.2 bushels harvested per acre (2.91 t/ha, was 44.2 bu/ac or 2.97 t/ha in 2003)
The major livestock industries in the United States:
|Cattle and calves||99,907,017||95,497,994||96,347,858||89,994,614|
|Hogs and pigs||61,188,149||60,405,103||67,786,318||66,026,785|
|Sheep and lambs||8,083,457||6,341,799||5,819,162||5,364,844|
& other meat chickens
Goats, horses, turkeys and bees are also raised, though in lesser quantities. Inventory data is not as readily available as for the major industries. For the three major goat-producing states—Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—there were 1.2 million goats at the end of 2002. There were 5.3 million horses in the United States at the end of 1998. There were 2.5 million colonies of bees at the end of 2005.
Farm type or majority enterprise type
- Cash grains includes corn, soybeans and other grains (wheat, oats, barley, sorghum), dry edible beans, peas, and rice.
- Other field crops includes peanuts, potatoes, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, broomcorn, popcorn, sugar beets, mint, hops, seed crops, hay, silage, forage, etc. Tobacco and cotton can be included here if not in their own separate category.
- High-value crops includes fruits, vegetables, melons, tree nuts, greenhouse, nursery crops, and horticultural specialties.
- Poultry and eggs
One characteristic of the agricultural industry that sets it apart from others is the number of individuals who are self-employed. Frequently, farmers and ranchers are both the principal operator, the individual responsible for successful management and day-to-day decisions, and the primary laborer for his or her operation. For agricultural workers that sustain an injury, the resultant loss of work has implications on physical health and financial stability.
Agriculture in the United States is primarily governed by periodically renewed U.S. farm bills. Governance is both a federal and a local responsibility with the United States Department of Agriculture being the federal department responsible. Government aid includes research into crop types and regional suitability as well as many kinds of subsidies, some price supports and loan programs. U.S. farmers are not subject to production quotas and some laws are different for farms compared to other workplaces.
Labor laws prohibiting children in other workplaces provide some exemptions for children working on farms with complete exemptions for children working on their family's farm. Children can also gain permits from vocational training schools or the 4-H club which allow them to do jobs they would otherwise not be permitted to do.
A large part of the U.S. farm workforce is made up of migrant and seasonal workers, many of them recent immigrants from Latin America. Additional laws apply to these workers and their housing which is often provided by the farmer.
In 2012, there were 3.2 million farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers and an estimated 757,900 agricultural workers were legally employed in the US. Animal breeders accounted for 11,500 of those workers with the rest categorized as miscellaneous agricultural workers. The median pay was $9.12 per hour or $18,970 per year. In 2009, about 519,000 people under age 20 worked on farms owned by their family. In addition to the youth who lived on family farms, an additional 230,000 youth were employed in agriculture. In 2004, women made up approximately 24% of farmers; that year, there were 580,000 women employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.
From 1999–2009, roughly 50% of hired crop farmworkers in the U.S. were noncitizens working without legal authorization. Large farms rely on new immigrants (such as Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani, and Mexican) that do not have many other options to work for extremely low wages. The legal status of the worker has been shown to impact the wage received for a job. An agricultural worker with no documentation earns an average of 15% less than one with amnesty or green card. Moreover, it has been found that undocumented workers have decreased mobility in the agricultural industry because they are less able to have high-skill and high-earning jobs (jobs that are similar to their documented counterparts). These first generation immigrants may remain as farm laborers seasonally for ten years. As they age, they grow poorer due to less skills, resources, and education. The United States passed a special provision in 1986 called the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) under which the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program granted amnesty to some agricultural laborers because of the importance of these workers to the industry. Though this slightly improved the lives of some workers, many more live in poverty and without benefits today. For example, though these workers face many occupational hazards, they are not insured nor protected by government provisions such as the Affordable Care Act. Instead, SAWs rely on Community and Migrant Health Centers that are built to serve this population (though these also suffer from lack of funding and healthcare workers).
Occupational safety and health
Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries due to the use of chemicals and risk of injury. Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries (general traumatic injury and musculoskeletal injury), work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, chemical-related illnesses, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure. In an average year, 516 workers die doing farm work in the U.S. (1992–2005). Every day, about 243 agricultural workers suffer lost-work-time injuries, and about 5% of these result in permanent impairment. Tractor overturns are the leading cause of agriculture-related fatal injuries, and account for over 90 deaths every year. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends the use of roll over protection structures on tractors to reduce the risk of overturn-related fatal injuries.
Farming is one of the few industries in which families (who often share the work and live on the premises) are also at risk for injuries, illness, and death. Agriculture is the most dangerous industry for young workers, accounting for 42% of all work-related fatalities of young workers in the U.S. between 1992 and 2000. In 2011, 108 youth, less than 20 years of age, died from farm-related injuries. Unlike other industries, half the young victims in agriculture were under age 15. For young agricultural workers aged 15–17, the risk of fatal injury is four times the risk for young workers in other workplaces Agricultural work exposes young workers to safety hazards such as machinery, confined spaces, work at elevations, and work around livestock. The most common causes of fatal farm-related youth injuries involve machinery, motor vehicles, or drowning. Together these three causes comprise more than half of all fatal injuries to youth on U.S. farms. Women in agriculture (including the related industries of forestry and fishing) numbered 556,000 in 2011.
Agriculture in the U.S. makes up approximately 75% of the country's pesticide use. Agricultural workers are at high risk for being exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides, whether or not they are directly working with the chemicals. Migrant workers, especially women, are at higher risk for health issues associated with pesticide exposure due to lack of training or appropriate safety precautions.
Some U.S. research centers are focused on the topic of health and safety in agricultural practices. These centers not only conduct research on the subject of occupational disease and injury prevention, but also promote agricultural health and safety through educational outreach programs. Most of these groups are funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the US Department of Agriculture, or other state agencies. Centers include:
- Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE 
- Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
- High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
- National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, Marshfield, WI
- Northeast Center for Agricultural and Occupational Health, New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health, Cooperstown, NY
- Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
- Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
- Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education, University of Texas, Tyler, TX
- Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, a collaboration between the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, St. Paul, MN, Minnesota Department of Health, St. Paul, MN and the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield, WI with Migrant Clinicians Network, Salisbury, MD
- Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, University of California, Davis, CA
The number of women working in agriculture has risen and the 2002 census of agriculture recorded a 40% increase in the number of female farm workers. Inequality and respect are common issues for these workers, as many have reported that they are not being respected, listened to, or taken seriously due to traditional views of women as housewives and caretakers.
Women may also face resistance when attempting to advance to higher positions. Other issues reported by female farm workers include receiving less pay than their male counterparts and a refusal or reluctance by their employers to offer their female workers the same additional benefits given to male workers such as housing.
Historically, farmland has been owned by small property owners, but as of 2017 institutional investors, including foreign corporations, had been purchasing farmland. In 2013 the largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods was bought by a company from China.
As of 2017, only about 4% of farms have sales over $1m, but these farms yield two-thirds of total output. Some of these are large farms have grown organically from private family-owned businesses.
- 2010 United States tomato shortage
- Banana production in the United States
- Beekeeping in the United States
- Child nutrition programs
- Electrical energy efficiency on United States farms
- Fishing industry in the United States
- Genetic engineering in the United States
- History of agriculture in the United States
- Poultry farming in the United States
- Soil in the United States
- List of largest producing countries of agricultural commodities
- List of turkey meat producing companies in the United States
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