scientific agriculture

Agriculture in the United States

Agriculture is a major industry in the United States and the country is a net exporter of food.

History of agriculture in the USA

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

In the U.S., 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 nineteenth century has made a large improvement in the USA's economic growth. 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 1950s, when soybeans began to replace oats and wheat.

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.

Major agricultural products

The top twenty agricultural products of the United States by value as reported by the FAO in 2003 (Products are ranked by their mass, multiplied by the 1999-2001 international prices. Mass is in metric tonnes):

1. Corn 256,904,992
2. Cattle meat 11,736,300
3. Cow's milk, whole, fresh 78,155,000
4. Chicken meat 15,006,000
5. Soybeans 65,795,300
6. Pig meat 8,574,290
7. Wheat 63,589,820
8. Cotton lint 3,967,810
9. Hen eggs 5,141,000
10. Turkey meat 2,584,200
11. Tomatoes 12,275,000
12. Potatoes 20,821,930
13. Grapes 6,125,670
14. Oranges 10,473,450
15. Rice, paddy 9,033,610
16. Apples 4,241,810
17. Sorghum 10,445,900
18. Lettuce 4,490,000
19. Cottonseed 6,072,690
20. Sugar beets 27,764,390

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 (in all, only 26 of the 188 crops the FAO tracks worldwide). Alfalfa and hay would both be in the top ten in 2003 if they were tracked by FAO.


Value of production

Though (and perhaps because) marijuana is illegal in the United States, it is the largest cash crop by value of production with approximately $35.8 billion. The largest legal crops by value of production are:

Major Crops in the U.S.A. - 1997
(in US$ billions)
Corn $24.4
Soybean $17.7
Wheat $8.6
Alfalfa $8.3
Cotton $6.1
Hay, other than alfalfa $5.1
Tobacco $3.0
Rice $1.7
Sorghum $1.4
Barley $.9
1997 USDA-NASS reports,

Note alfalfa and hay are not tracked by the FAO and the production of tobacco in the U.S. has fallen 60% between 1997 and 2003.


U.S. agriculture has a high yield relative to other countries. The yield was (in 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 are:

Inventories in the United States at the end of 1997 were:

  • 403,000,000 chickens
  • 99,500,000 cattle
  • 59,900,000 hogs
  • 7,600,000 sheep

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 (AZ, NM, and TX) there were 1,200,000 goats at the end of 2002. There were 5,300,000 horses in the United States at the end of 1998. There were 2,500,000 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:


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. Pro-agriculture Americans form an extremely powerful interest group in American politics and have since the founding of the USA. 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, half of the US population was employed in agriculture. As of 2006, less than one half per cent of the population is directly employed in agriculture.

In 2004, of the 145 million employed workers in the US, 834,000 of them held jobs as agricultural workers. 83% of these jobs were as farm workers. The median hourly income as of May 2004 was $7.70 for farmworkers planting, growing and harvesting crops, and $8.31 for farmworkers tending to animals.


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