Agriculture in the United States

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A wheat harvest in Idaho
This photo from a 1921 encyclopedia shows a tractor ploughing a crop field.

Agriculture is a major industry in the United States, which is a net exporter of food.[1] 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 (1.69 km2) per farm.[2] Although agricultural activity occurs in most states, it is particularly concentrated in the Great Plains, a vast expanse of flat, arable land in the center of the United States and in the region around the Great Lakes known as the Corn Belt.[3] The United States was a leader in seed improvement i.e. hybridization and in expanding uses for crops from the work of George Washington Carver to the development of bioplastics and biofuels. The mechanization of farming, intensive farming, has been a major theme in U.S. history, including John Deere's steel plow, Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper, Eli Whitney's cotton gin to the widespread success of the Fordson tractor and the combine harvesters first made from them. Modern agriculture in the U.S. ranges from the common hobby farms, small-scale producers to large commercial farming covering thousands of acres of cropland or rangeland.


Cotton farming on a Southern plantation in 1921

Corn, turkeys, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, and sunflower seeds constitute some of the major holdovers from the agricultural endowment of the Americas.

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.[4]

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.[4]

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.[4]

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.[citation needed] 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 skyrocketed from 3% to 46.5%, 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".[5]

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.

Major agricultural products

Satellite image of circular crop fields characteristic of center pivot irrigation in Kansas (June 2001). Healthy, growing crops are green. Corn would be growing into leafy stalks by late June. Sorghum, which resembles corn, grows more slowly and would be much smaller and therefore, possibly paler. Wheat is a brilliant gold as harvest occurs in June. Fields of brown have been recently harvested and plowed under or lie fallow for the year.

Tonnes of United States agriculture production, as reported by the FAO in 2003 and 2013 (ranked roughly in order of value):[6]

Millions of Tonnes in 2003 2013
Corn 256.0 354.0
Cattle meat 12.0 11.7
Cow's milk, whole, fresh 77.0 91.0
Chicken meat 14.7 17.4
Soybeans 67.0 89.0
Pig meat 9.1 10.5
Wheat 64.0 58.0
Cotton lint 4.0 2.8
Hen eggs 5.2 5.6
Turkey meat 2.5 2.6
Tomatoes 11.4 12.6
Potatoes 20.8 19.8
Grapes 5.9 7.7
Oranges 10.4 7.6
Rice, paddy 9.1 8.6
Apples 3.9 4.1
Sorghum 10.4 9.9
Lettuce 4.7 3.6
Cottonseed 6.0 5.6
Sugar beets 30.7 29.8

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 USA – 1997
(in US$ billions)

(in US$ billions)

Corn $24.4 $52.4
Soybeans $17.7 $40.3
Wheat $8.6 $11.9
Alfalfa $8.3 $10.8
Cotton $6.1 $5.1
Hay, (Other than Alfalfa) $5.1 $8.4
Tobacco $3.0 $1.8
Rice $1.7 $3.1
Sorghum $1.4 $1.7
Barley $.9 $.9
1997 USDA-NASS reports,[7]
2015 USDA-NASS reports,[8]

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.


U.S. agriculture has a high yield relative to other countries. As of 2004:[9]

  • 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)


File:US cattle density 2007.jpg
Density of cattle and calves by county in 2007.

The major livestock industries in the United States:

U.S. livestock and poultry inventory[10][11][12]
Type 1997 2002 2007 2012
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
1,214,446,356 1,389,279,047 1,602,574,592 1,506,276,846
Laying hens 314,144,304 334,435,155 349,772,558 350,715,978

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 2002.

Farm type or majority enterprise type

Farm type is based on which commodities are the majority crops grown on a farm. Nine common types include:[13][14][15]


Agriculture subsidy, from a Congressional Budget Office report. Note: chart does not show sugar subsidies.

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 or aliens working under work permits. Additional laws apply to these workers and their housing which is often provided by the farmer.


In 1870, 70-80 percent of the US population was employed in agriculture.[16] As of 2008, less than 2 percent of the population is directly employed in agriculture.[17][18]

In 2012, there were 3.2 million farmers,[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] In 2004, women made up approximately 24% of farmers; that year, there were 580,000 women employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.[22]

Occupational safety and health

Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries due to the use of chemicals and risk of injury.[23][24] 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.[24][25][26] 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.[27] Tractor overturns are the leading cause of agriculture-related fatal injuries, and account for over 90 deaths every year. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recommends the use of roll over protection structures on tractors to reduce the risk of overturn-related fatal injuries.[27]

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.[21] Unlike other industries, half the young victims in agriculture were under age 15.[28] For young agricultural workers aged 15–17, the risk of fatal injury is four times the risk for young workers in other workplaces[29] 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.[30] Women in agriculture (including the related industries of forestry and fishing) numbered 556,000 in 2011.[24]

Agriculture in the US 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.[26]

Research centers

Some US 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.[31] Centers include:

Women in agriculture

Women who work in agriculture face different occupational hazards than men. Women in agriculture are poisoned by pesticides at twice the rate of their male counterparts. Exposure to pesticides can also affect fertility; women exposed to pesticides take longer to conceive (men are unaffected). Women are also at risk for bronchitis from exposure to grain, pesticides, and dust.[26]

See also

Additional reading


  1. "Latest U.S. Agricultural Trade Data." USDA Economic Research Service. Ed. Stephen MacDonald. USDA, 4 Sept. 2013. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.<>.
  2. "US Census of Agriculture, 2007". 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Hatfield, J., 2012: Agriculture in the Midwest. In: U.S. National Climate Assessment Midwest Technical Input Report. J. Winkler, J. Andresen, J. Hatfield, D. Bidwell, and D. Brown, coordinators. Available from the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA) Center
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Cronon, William. Changes in the Land : Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill & Wang, 2003.
  5. Shurtleff, William; Aoyagi, Akiko (2004). History of World Soybean Production and Trade - Part 1. Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, California: Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s. line feed character in |publisher= at position 50 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "FAOSTAT". Retrieved 2015-11-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "United States Crop Rankings - 1997 Production Year". Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Crop Values - 2014 Summary" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-11-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Chapter IX: Farm Resources, Income, and Expenses" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-04-09. Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. USDA. 2004. 2002 Census of agriculture. United States summary and state data. Vol. 1. Geographic area series. Part 51. AC-02-A-51. 663 pp.
  11. USDA. 2009. 2007 Census of agriculture. United States summary and state data. Vol. 1. Geographic area series. Part 51. AC-07-A-51. 739 pp.
  12. USDA. 2014. 2012 Census of agriculture. United States summary and state data. Vol. 1. Geographic area series. Part 51. AC-12-A-51. 695 pp.
  13. "Appendix A: Glossary" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "ERS/USDA Briefing Room - Farm Structure: Questions and Answers". Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Chapter 3:american Farms" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Neat Facts About United States Agriculture, Retrieved November 19, 2013
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  18. "Extension". 2014-03-28. Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Farm Demographics - U.S. Farmers by Gender, Age, Race, Ethnicity, and More".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Agricultural Workers : Occupational Outlook Handbook : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics". 2014-01-08. Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 Youth in Agriculture, OHSA, accessed January 21, 2014
  22. "Women's Safety and Health Issues at Work Job Area: Agriculture". NIOSH. September 27, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "NIOSH- Agriculture". United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Archived from the original on 9 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Swanson, Naomi; Tisdale-Pardi, Julie; MacDonald, Leslie; Tiesman, Hope M. (13 May 2013). "Women's Health at Work". National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Retrieved 21 January 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "NIOSH Pesticide Poisoning MOnitoring Program Protects Farmworkers". 2009-07-31. Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
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  28. NIOSH [2003]. Unpublished analyses of the 1992–2000 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Special Research Files provided to NIOSH by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (includes more detailed data than the research file, but excludes data from New York City). Morgantown, WV: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Safety Research, Surveillance and Field Investigations Branch, Special Studies Section. Unpublished database.
  29. BLS [2000]. Report on the youth labor force. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, pp. 58–67.
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  33. "Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation - National Children's Center for Rural Agricultural Health & Safety - Welcome". Retrieved 2014-04-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links