Business & Trade - Agriculture



Agriculture in the United States has changed dramatically over the last 200 years. At the time of the American Revolution (1775-83), 95 percent of the population was engaged in farming. Today that figure is less than 2 percent. Early in American history, farmers set the tone for the rest of the nation. They have exhibited an individualism and an egalitarianism admired and emulated by the rest of society.

As settlement advanced from east to west, U.S. agriculture attained a richness and variety unmatched in most other parts of the world. This is true still today, in large part owing to the quantity of land and the generosity of nature. American agriculture came to be based on a multitude of family farms and they tended to be scattered and isolated, rather than clustered around villages, thus enhancing the farmer's individualism and self-reliance.

Readiness to embrace new technology has been characteristic of American farmers. By the time of the Civil War (1861-65), machines were taking over the work of haying, threshing, mowing, cultivating, and planting and, in doing so, spurring big increases in productivity. Another factor in the rise of agricultural output was the rapid flow of settlers across the Mississippi River in the late 19th century. The federal government promoted the internal migration in several ways, including the Homestead Act (1862).

Overproduction became a serious problem after the Civil War. The years from the 1870s until about 1900 were especially hard for the American farmer. With the creation of the Department of Agriculture in 1862, the federal government took a direct role in agricultural affairs. After a period of prosperity in the early 20th century, farm prices declined in the 1920s. The Great Depression of the 1930s drove prices still lower, and by 1932 farm prices had dropped, on average, to less than one-third of their 1920 levels. Many present-day farm policies have their roots in the desperate decade of the 1930s and the rescue effort contained in the New Deal.

Overall, American agriculture has been a notable success story. American consumers pay less for their food than those in many other industrial countries, and one-third of the cropland in the United States produces crops destined for export. In 2003 agricultural exports exceeded imports by five to four.

American agriculture increasingly has become an "agribusiness." Agribusiness includes a variety of farm businesses and structures, from small, one-family corporations to huge conglomerates or multinational firms that own large tracts of land or that produce goods and materials used by farmers. The advent of agribusiness in the late 20th century has meant fewer but much larger farms. Sometimes owned by absentee stockholders, these corporate farms use more machinery and far fewer farm hands. In 1940, there were 6 million farms averaging 67 hectares each. By the late 1990s, there are only about 2.2 million farms averaging 190 hectares in size. During roughly this same period, farm employment decline dramatically – from 12.5 million in 1930 to 1.2 million in the 1990s. In 1900, half of the labor force were farmers, but in 2003 the figure is less than 2 percent. Today, less than 140,000 American farmers product most of American food and fiber.

- Abridged from State Dept. Publications and other U.S. government materials
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[Last Updated: 9/13/2010]
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