Land and Natural Resources
U.S. agricultural production relies heavily on the Nation’s land, water, and other natural resources, and has a direct impact on the quality of the Nation’s natural environment. Over the years, improvement in the sector’s productive use of resources has reduced the amount of land and water needed per unit of output, and concerted public and private efforts have improved the sector’s environmental performance. These charts illustrate several aspects of these trends.
The 2012 U.S. land area amounted to nearly 2.3 billion acres, with nearly 1.2 billion acres in agricultural use. The share of the land base in agricultural use declined from 63 percent in 1949 to 52 percent in 2012, the latest year for which comprehensive national data are available. Gradual declines have occurred in cropland, while grazed forestland has decreased more rapidly. In 2012, 392 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (an 18-percent decline from 1949); 655 million acres were in grassland pasture and range (4 percent more than in 1949); 130 million acres were in grazed forestland (59 percent less than in 1949); and 8 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (45 percent less than in 1949). Urban land, while it represents a relatively small share of the U.S. land base, has nearly tripled in area since 1949.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that agriculture, including its electricity consumption, accounted for an estimated 10.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2021. Globally, carbon dioxide emissions are the largest contributor to climate change. However, the emissions profile for agriculture differs from that of the overall economy. In agriculture, crop and livestock activities emit nitrous oxide and methane, mainly from fertilizer application, enteric fermentation (a normal digestive process in animals that produces methane), and manure storage and management. GHG emissions from U.S. agriculture have increased by approximately 6.9 percent since 1990, while total U.S. GHG emissions in 2021 were 2.3 percent lower than they were in 1990.
USDA provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers through voluntary conservation programs to address natural resource concerns. USDA’s funding for major working lands conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, has more than doubled over the past 25 years. At the same time, funding for the Conservation Reserve Program has stayed fairly constant. The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Working land programs provide technical and financial assistance to producers who use, install, or maintain conservation practices on land in production (e.g., nutrient management, cover crops, and field-edge filter strips). Agricultural easements provide long-term protection for agricultural land and wetlands. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is a partner-driven program that leverages partner resources to advance innovative projects that address natural resource challenges on agricultural land.
USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 22.9 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of fiscal 2023, with an annual budget of roughly $1.8 billion (making it USDA’s largest single conservation program in terms of spending at that time). Enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Program acreage tends to be concentrated on marginally productive cropland that is susceptible to erosion by wind or rainfall. A large share of CRP land was in the Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land were found in eastern Washington and Oregon, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, the Mississippi Delta, and southeastern Idaho and northwestern Utah.