Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Website Administrator
Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-98) 55 pp, August 2012
Agricultural production depends on endowments such as knowledge,
production technologies, and management skills, and it influences a
wide range of natural resources, including land, water, and genetic
material. Agricultural resource use depends on the decisions made
by the operators of the Nation's 2.2 million farms, which are
shaped, in turn, by market conditions, public policies, and the
specific characteristics of individual farms and households. When
making these decisions, farm operators have clear incentives to
consider their own and their households' well-being, but incentives
to consider more distant impacts are weaker.
What Is the Issue?
A new focus on social, economic, and environmental
sustainability has increased demand for indepth information on
agricultural production methods, their social and environmental
effects, and ways to measure them. Consumers are now concerned not
just with the cost of food, but also with long-term impacts on the
environment and agricultural workers. However, there are no
product- or process-based standards that regulate sustainable
agricultural systems throughout the supply chain. Concise and
accurate information about the current state of, and complex
interactions between, public policies, economic conditions, farming
practices, conservation, resources, and the environment can assist
public and private decisionmaking.
What Did the Study Find?
Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators (AREI),
2012 discusses important economic, technology, policy,
resource use, input use, and land management changes. Some changes
can enhance while others degrade economic, social, or environmental
sustainability. Notable findings include:
• Census data show that the number of U.S.
farms varied between 2.1 and 2.2 million since 1992. In
2009, small farms made up 88 percent of all U.S. farms, but
large-scale family and nonfamily farms accounted for more than 80
percent of the total value of production.
• In 2007, about 51 percent of the 2.3 billion acres in
the United States was used for agricultural purposes,
including cropping, grazing (in pasture, range, and forests), and
farmsteads and farm roads. Total cropland acreage in 2007 reached
its lowest level since the Major Land Use series began in 1945.
Over 1959-2007, forest-use land and grassland, pasture, and range
also decreased, while land in special uses (primarily recreation
areas, transportation, and national defense) and urban areas
• From 2000 to 2010, national aggregate farm real estate
values appreciated faster than residential values.
Traditionally, farmland values were driven largely by the returns
from agricultural activities, but today in some regions
farmland values are influenced by factors such as urban influence
and income from hunting leases. As a result, cropland values in
these regions greatly exceed their implied agricultural use
• From 1948 to 2009, agricultural output grew 1.63 percent per
year while aggregate input use increased only 0.11 percent
annually, so positive growth in the farm sector was mainly due to
productivity growth (1.52 percent per year).
• Total agricultural research and development
(R&D) funding generally increased since 2000; private
sector funding grew to exceed that of the public sector, which grew
slowly and sporadically until 2006 before declining. Private sector
R&D tends to emphasize marketable goods, while public sector
R&D tends to emphasize public goods like environmental
protection, nutrition, and food safety.
• Corn, cotton, and soybean growers have widely adopted
genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant and
insect-resistant seeds since 1996. Despite higher prices
for genetically engineered seed than for conventional seeds, U.S.
farmers are realizing economic benefits from increased crop yields,
lower pesticide costs, and/or management time savings.
• Real expenditures (2010 US$) and quantities for
pesticide active ingredients declined an average
2.4 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, per year during
1996-2007, even though expenditures and quantities applied
increased from 2006 to 2007. However, herbicide use increased, and
increasing glyphosate use on herbicide-tolerant crops and reduced
diversity of weed management practices are associated with
increased weed resistance.
• Commercial fertilizer consumption fell from
23 million short tons in 2004 to 21 million short tons in 2010,
with high fertilizer prices contributing to the decline. Since
2004, nitrogen recovery rates (amount removed by harvested
crop/amount applied) on corn and cotton have increased, and the
shares of planted acreage where application rates exceed 125
percent of the crop's agronomic need have decreased. Phosphate
recovery rates are relatively unchanged for corn and cotton. Mining
phosphate in soybean plantings increased.
• In recent decades, onfarm irrigation
efficiency-the share of applied water that is beneficially used by
the crop-has increased: from 1984 to 2008, total irrigated acres in
the West increased by 2.1 million acres, while water applied
declined by nearly 100,000 acre-feet, reflecting improved water-use
efficiency, as well as changes in irrigated acreage and regional
• Since 2000, corn, cotton, soybean, and wheat acreage under
conservation tillage (mulch, ridge, and no till)
has increased, which may reduce soil erosion and water pollution
but increase pest management costs. Over that same time, continuous
corn and corn-inclusive rotations increased and continuous soybeans
decreased due to higher corn prices, with uncertain effects on
erosion and water pollution. Erosion control structures and
conservation buffers are more widely used on highly
erodible land than on other land, but overall, structures were more
widely used and buffers less widely used on cotton and wheat than
on corn and soybeans.
• From 2004 to 2011, organic food sales more
than doubled from $11 billion to $25 billion, accounting for over
3.5 percent of food sales in 2011. In 2008, growers practiced
certified organic production on less than 1 percent of U.S.
cropland and pasture/rangeland, but the percentage is higher for
fruit/vegetable crops and for dairy production.
• Federal funding for voluntary programs that encourage
land retirement and adoption of conservation
practices on working lands was $5.5 billion in 2010,
higher than at any time since 1960 (when expressed in 2010
dollars); funding increased nearly tenfold for working-land
conservation from 2003 to 2010. Enrollment in the Conservation
Reserve Program (CRP) peaked at 36.8 million acres in 2007, but the
2008 Farm Act cut maximum enrollment to 32 million acres and high
crop returns have discouraged new CRP bids, so 29 million acres
were under 10- to 15-year contracts as of June 2012. Goals of the
CRP include soil conservation, improved water and air quality, and
enhanced wildlife habitat. Total 2008-12 authorized funding for the
Environmental Quality Incentive Program is $7.25 billion; 60
percent is targeted for resource concerns in poultry and livestock