Agriculture in the United States

A wheat harvest in Idaho
This photo from a 1921 encyclopedia shows a tractor plowing 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 (169 hectares) per farm.[2] Although agricultural activity occurs in all 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 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 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. 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).

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

Rice paddy, California
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.


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


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. Additional laws apply to these workers and their housing which is often provided by the farmer.


In 1870, almost 50 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]

From 1999-2009, roughly 50% of hired crop farmworkers in the US were noncitizens working without legal authorization.[23]

Occupational safety and health

Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries due to the use of chemicals and risk of injury.[24][25] 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.[25][26][27] 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.[28] 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.[28]

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.[29] For young agricultural workers aged 15–17, the risk of fatal injury is four times the risk for young workers in other workplaces[30] 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.[31] Women in agriculture (including the related industries of forestry and fishing) numbered 556,000 in 2011.[25]

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.[27]

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.[32] 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.[27]

Pesticide exposure in relationship to female agricultural workers

In many developing countries worldwide, women make up a significant proportion of agricultural workers, accounting for between 44-75% of agricultural workers, depending on which country is being examined.[43] In developed countries, approximately 36% of the entire agricultural workforce are women, with approximately one in five agricultural workers in the United States being women.[43] Women agricultural workers in the United States are exposed to various categories of pesticides, which include insecticides, fungicides, disinfectants, herbicides, and fumigants. These pesticides are applied in order to protect a multitude of crops, including but not limited to, fruits, vegetables, grains, and fiber crops.[44] The exposures can occur via application as well as residues left in the soil and on the crops after application has occurred; pesticide may also be present in ambient air.[43] Women may acquire acute pesticide poisoning, which has classified as being based on three criteria. These criteria include the strength of evidence that a pesticide exposure occurred, whether adverse health effects were observed by a healthcare professional, and if there is sufficient evidence that the known toxicology of the agent was consistent with the observed health effects.[45] The WHO defines acute pesticide poisoning as any illness or health effect resulting from suspected or confirmed exposure to a pesticide within 48 hours.[46] Female agricultural workers are less likely to wear Personal Protective Equipment, which is made of chemical resistance material that prevents chemicals from coming in contact with skin for a limited period of time,.[47][48] Only 51% of women pesticide handlers utilize PPE, while 26% of women non-handlers use PPE; this is significantly less than male workers in the agricultural field and is largely a result of ill-fitting equipment, including glasses, gloves, respirators, and protective outerwear,.[49][50]

Acute Pesticide Poisoning Case Definition Matrix

Health effects

Surveillance for occupational pesticide-related illnesses and injuries are tracked by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the SENSOR-Pesticides program.[51] The EPA estimates between 10,000 - 20,000 physician related pesticide poisonings are reported among hired US agricultural workers each year.[51] "While poisonings comprise a relatively small portion of total agricultural worker occupational illness, this is likely underestimated due to inadequate state surveillance programs, lack of physician training to recognize poisonings, lack of health insurance among farm workers, worker reluctance to report poisonings, and the transient nature of agricultural workers".[52] Female agricultural workers face the same potential acute exposure and chronic conditions as do their male counterparts.

Acute Exposure Conditions dizziness; confusion; abnormal skin sensations; contact dermatitis; eye irritation; chest tightness; gastrointestinal problems; vomiting; convulsions; and even death in cases of acute exposure.[53]

Chronic Conditions dermatological sensitivity; respiratory disease including lung fibrosis and chronic bronchitis; asthma-like syndromes; cancer; and neurological symptoms.[54]

The issue of preconceptional prenatal exposure is another factor in the health of female agricultural workers. It has been documented in the literature that pesticide exposure before or during pregnancy has been associated with increased risk of infertility,[55] perinatal death,[56] spontaneous abortion/stillbirth,[57] premature birth,[58] and congenital malformations.[59] These health ramifications not only impact the physical and mental health of women but also future generations.

Epigenetic effects

The female agricultural workers are not the only ones that suffer damage from pesticide exposure. Husbands of the agricultural worker as well as the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are also affected. This is due to exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides because they have been shown to cause damage to DNA in sperm cells.[60] When DNA damage is done in gamete cells (sperm and egg cells) then the future generations will all be affected. The damage may not cause any noticeable abnormalities in the development of the child born to a father with sperm cell DNA damage. However, it could lead to such serious complications as Autism (caused by chromosomal abnormalities) or Leukemia.[61] Female agricultural workers that are exposed to pesticides can expose their family members by bringing home some of the pesticides from work on their clothes, or skin.[62] The husband's DNA can be compromised through this exposure pathway, as well as any other children already born and living in the house.

Scientific limitations

The two most common limitations in studying the health effects of pesticide exposure in women are the small sample sizes and the lack of toxicological data,.[63][64] Ensuring that the proper exposure is measured relies heavily on the study participants not moving residences throughout the study period. However, this is nearly impossible because migrant workers and seasonal employees do not typically live in the same place throughout the year.[65] Scientific studies require consistency within the group of participants being studied so that confounders are adjusted for, and transient residents do not make for very consistent study participants. Such living arrangements also make agricultural workers difficult to get in contact with. The most common methods for scientific researchers to find a person's contact information are not available for these populations. Health insurance information is not available and contact information left with an employer may not be correct year-round.[66] Additionally, there is a very limited amount of quantifiable data on the pesticides the study participants are exposed to.[67] The specific names of the pesticides may not be available.[68] The units of pesticide applied per field may not accurately represent the units that a worker is exposed to.[69] The number of days or hours that an agricultural worker is exposed is rarely recorded. This is due to the inconsistencies in the end of an agricultural work day practices - such as removing work clothing before going home, showering before going home, etc. Additionally, the proximity of agricultural workers' homes to the fields they harvest results in more exposure to the pesticides, and the amount of exposure at home is even more difficult to measure.

Occupational Safety

In addition to the scientific limitations regarding pesticide exposure data, a variety of challenges exist in the industry for female farmworkers. Occupational safety measures are not always well defined and rarely enforced. This means that not all laborers are subject to safety training through their provider. Furthermore, as many as 35% of female farmworkers do not know of any health risks associated with pesticide spraying at all.[70] When workers are unaware of best practices in pesticide application and the subsequent health risks, they are unable to protect themselves and their families appropriately from pesticide exposure. One of the first steps of protection against exposure is through personal protective equipment (PPEs). However, PPEs are not regularly used and rarely includes all the recommended protective measures such as goggles and gloves.[71] Some women also report not having the necessary equipment to mix the pesticides and ultimately resort to using household items like broomsticks or even their hands.[71]

Home Safety

Home safety provides its own challenges for women. It is possible for non-laborers to be exposed to pesticides through clothing contamination. In order to maintain a safe home environment, clothing from spraying pesticides should be cleaned and stored separately from other clothing in the household.[72] Exposure can also be limited by having workers shower within 15 minutes of returning home at the end of the work day.[70] The pesticides used in the agricultural industry in the United States often have a strong odor that helps to remind families of the presence of toxins which makes it more likely that they PPEs and equipment will be stored appropriately.[73] Family members are also subject to contamination through food and water supplies.[70] Many people reported reusing pesticide containers for laundry or to carry water.[71]

Social Determinants of Health

Finally, all of these factors are compounded by social determinants affecting agricultural workers. Studies have shown that as many as 97% of female farm laborers take their children with them to work, thereby directly exposing them to pesticide contamination.[74] Farm workers have literacy rates significantly lower than the rest of the population. This negatively impacts health outcomes because employees that have not received safety training are not able to read the warning labels and instructions on the pesticides. In one study, "Only 85 (23.2%) of the women could read English and 69 (18.9%) reported ever reading the pesticide labels.".[71] Housing is usually cramped without adequate laundry or bathroom facilities to wash and store equipment.[75] Such dwellings are often occupied by multiple laborers thereby multiplying the overall contaminants. Lastly, women in the agricultural industry report accessing prenatal health care services at nearly half the rate of the national average, 42% vs. 76%, respectively.[76]

Policy implications

Protection of women's reproductive health is needed for female agricultural workers. Farm work is one of three most dangerous occupations in the United States.[77] According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (1994-1995), the proportion of women in farming declined from 25% in the 1980s to less than 20% in the 1990s.[78] As a result of "a larger portion of the farm worker population being U.S. born (1994-1995) which means that every third U.S. born farm worker was a woman while only one in eight foreign-born farm workers was a woman.[79]" Due to their occupation, women and their families are at risk to higher exposure from pesticides than the general population from direct contact and pesticide drift as result of their housing proximity to agricultural lands.[80] To ensure the safety and health of women, they need additional surveillance and monitoring for any toxic effects caused by working and living in close proximity to commercial spraying operations,.[80][81] Moreover, this is important to women's reproductive health,[82][83] because the quality of healthcare they receive in the United States during their lifespan has a direct impact on their reproductive health and well-being and that of their US-born children,.[84][85] Furthermore, "U.S. born workers, women tended to be older than their male counterparts (32 and 25 years old, respectively) while among the foreign-born farm workers, there was no meaningful difference in age between men and women (29 and 30 years old, respectively).[86]" The key issues confronting women in agriculture's healthcare are: access to health care;[87] lack of affordable health insurance;[80] and lack of a medical home due to the seasonality of the work which forces migrant workers to follow the crops.

Increased enforcement and compliance of existing EPA’s Worker Protection Standards[88] is needed to protect women workers from pesticide exposures as well as new policies that specifically address women's reproductive health and to their families and unborn children.[88] This is complicated due to the composition of the workforce which consists primarily of migrants with a mixed immigrant status and the United States government's policies[89] about not providing nonemergency health care to nonresidents. This includes prenatal care[82] for undocumented workers whose child born in the United States is considered an American by the 14 Amendment of the US Constitution or the Citizenship Clause. Additional work on compliance onsite by OSHA.[90]

See also

Additional reading


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