ERS Charts of Note

Subscribe to get highlights from our current and past research, Monday through Friday, or see our privacy policy.
See also: Editors' Pick 2018: Best of Charts of Note gallery.


Soybeans accounted for the majority of U.S. and Brazil’s agricultural exports to China in 2017

Thursday, July 25, 2019

China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans and represented 65 percent of global soybean imports in 2017. Soybeans are the most prominent agricultural commodity exported to China by both the United States and Brazil. During 2017, prior to the Chinese government’s implementation of tariffs on U.S. soybeans, exports of soybeans were valued at $12.3 billion and accounted for 63 percent of U.S. agricultural exports to China. Conversely, soybeans accounted for less than 20 percent of U.S. agricultural exports to other regions. For example, U.S. soybean exports to Southeast Asia—the second-largest destination—were valued at $1.95 billion but accounted for 17 percent of agricultural exports to that region. The share of soybeans in U.S. agricultural exports was 14 percent for the European Union, 10 percent for the Middle East and North Africa, and 7 percent for other East Asian countries. The share of soybeans in Brazil’s agricultural exports to China was larger. During 2017, $20.3 billion of soybean exports accounted for nearly 88 percent of Brazil’s agricultural exports to China. Soybeans accounted for 14 percent of Brazil’s agricultural exports to the European Union—the second largest destination for Brazil’s soybeans. This chart appears in the ERS report, “Interdependence of China, United States, and Brazil in Soybean Trade,” released in June 2019.

Inflation in retail food prices has trended down over the past 20 years

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Historically, grocery store food prices have generally risen each year. However, in 2016, retail food prices actually fell 1.3 percent and fell again in 2017 (0.2 percent). These back-to-back years of food price deflation helped lower the 20-year moving average for grocery store price inflation from 3.6 percent in 1999 to 2.0 percent in 2018. Beginning in 2015, increased U.S. production of agricultural commodities, such as beef cattle and eggs, and lower energy prices contributed to the 2016 and 2017 decreases in retail food prices. In addition, a strong U.S. dollar since 2014 made imported foods (i.e., many fruits and vegetables, fish, and sugar) less expensive. Another contributing factor to low retail food price inflation in recent years may be stepped up competition on the basis of price for U.S. consumers’ food dollars. This chart appears in the article, “Retail Food Price Inflation Has Slowed Over Time,” from the July 2019 edition of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

U.S. exports to Mexico of corn and corn-based products have increased since the end of NAFTA’s transition to free trade

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which entered into force in 1994, significantly affected the U.S.-Mexico corn trade. From 1994 to 2007, the agreement permitted Mexico to regulate U.S. access to its corn market via a tariff-rate quota (TRQ). While these TRQs aimed to assist Mexico’s domestic producers as they adjusted to international markets, they also constrained the country’s ability to satisfy its growing demand for corn through the importation of yellow corn. Consequently, the Mexican Government opted to pursue a more liberal trade policy toward corn than that which NAFTA outlined, particularly during the later years of the transition to free trade. As a result, U.S. corn entered Mexico relatively freely during this period. Beginning in 2008, NAFTA lifted all formal restrictions, allowing U.S. corn to enter Mexico free of all tariffs and quotas. Since then, the annual value of U.S. exports to Mexico of corn and corn-based products has increased by about $1.8 billion in nominal terms since 2007. During the period 2016-18, the United States sold an annual average of 15.1 million metric tons of corn to Mexico, valued at about $2.8 billion, with additional corn-related products adding around another $1 billion. This chart appears in the ERS report, “The Growing Corn Economies of Mexico and the United States,” released in July 2019.

Farm sector debt at 30-year high, but interest expenses remain low

Monday, July 22, 2019

Farm sector debt has reached levels near the peak levels of the late 1970s and early 1980s. High levels of debt increase a farm’s risk of going out of business. From 1993 to 2017, real (inflation-adjusted) farm debt increased by 87 percent, or 4 percent per year on average. ERS forecasts farm debt to increase 2 percent in both 2018 and 2019. When adjusted for inflation, total farm sector debt in 2019 is forecast to be 4 percent ($4 billion) below the peak reached in 1980. Interest paid on farm debt remained relatively stable from 1990 through 2013, as interest rates declined. However, interest expenses in 2019 are forecast to increase 38 percent ($6 billion) compared to 2013. Interest expenses in 2019 are forecast to be 18 percent above the 30-year average, 19 percent above the 10-year average, but 55 percent below the peak in 1982. This chart updates data found in the July 2018 Amber Waves feature, “Current Indicators of Farm Sector Financial Health.” Find additional information and analysis on ERS’s Farm Sector Income and Finances topic page.

Rural population gains among Native Americans and Hispanics have offset population losses among Whites and Blacks

Friday, July 19, 2019

Rural America, with racial/ethnic minorities making up 22 percent of the population in 2016-17, has continued to diversify, but at a slower rate compared to 2012-13. The annual rate of population loss among rural Whites fell from -0.44 to -0.20 percent between 2012-13 and 2016-17. This change is likely due to changes in net migration, with fewer Whites moving out and more moving into rural areas in 2016-17 compared with 2012-13. The rural Black population continued to lose population in 2016-17 as well, but at a higher rate of loss than earlier (-0.20 versus -0.14 percent in 2012-13). Population gains among American Indians and Hispanics have offset population losses among Whites and Blacks. American Indians increased their rural population throughout the period but at diminishing rates, while the Hispanic rate of growth remained near 2 percent per year throughout the period. Although Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the rural population, they accounted for just 9 percent of the rural population in 2017 (compared to 80 percent for Whites). This chart appears in the November 2018 ERS report Rural America at a Glance, 2018 Edition.

Percent of residents participating in SNAP decreased in 46 States from 2013 to 2018

Thursday, July 18, 2019

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides benefits for purchasing food in authorized food stores to needy households with limited incomes and assets. In fiscal 2018, an average of 40.3 million low-income individuals per month received SNAP benefits in the United States. The percent of Americans participating in the program declined from 15.0 percent in 2013 to 12.3 percent in 2018, marking the fifth consecutive year of a decline in the percent of the population receiving SNAP. In seven States—Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming—8 percent or fewer of residents received SNAP benefits in 2018. Between 2013 and 2018, 46 States and the District of Columbia saw a decrease in the share of residents receiving SNAP benefits, while 4 States experienced increases. Idaho showed the largest decline in percent of residents participating in SNAP—a 36-percent decline from 14.1 to 9.0 percent of residents. Eighteen States and the District of Columbia had declines in participation shares of at least 25 percent between 2013 and 2018. Nevada had the largest increase in participation share, growing from 12.9 to 14.5 percent of residents. The fiscal 2018 map appears in the Food Security and Nutrition Assistance section of the ERS data product “Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials,” updated in June 2019.

Annual number of foodborne illnesses associated with outbreaks in tomatoes has generally decreased since their high in 2001

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

About 48 million episodes of foodborne illness and 3,000 deaths occur per year in the United States. The most common foodborne pathogens cause an estimated annual burden of $14 billion to $36 billion. Produce has been implicated in 46 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks. Tomatoes have been the source of a number of foodborne illness outbreaks since 1998, but the annual number of foodborne illnesses associated with outbreaks in tomatoes has generally decreased since their high of nearly 900 in 2001. Ten outbreaks have caused more than 100 illnesses, while 2 were associated with deaths of individuals. In 2005 and 2006, multistate outbreaks of salmonella in tomatoes sickened 487 individuals. The most prominent recent case, which involved the food chain Chipotle in 2015, sickened 119 individuals with E. coli and hospitalized 17. Although the FDA never identified a single field or source of contamination, Chipotle was reported to have traced the contaminated tomatoes back to a farm in Virginia. In unrelated cases, contamination was traced back to irrigation pond water on Virginia farms; animal waste, farm surfaces, and ditch water on a Florida farm; and unknown sources on three farms in Ohio. This chart appears in the ERS report, “U.S. Produce Growers' Decisionmaking Under Evolving Food Safety Standards,” released in June 2019.

Recommended quantities, varieties of fruits and vegetables could be eaten for $2.10 to $2.60 per day in 2016

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

“Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” is among USDA’s key messages about how Americans can achieve healthy diets. However, many Americans still consume an insufficient quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables. One reason may be a perception that these foods are expensive. To address this perception, ERS reports the average cost to consume 154 fresh and processed fruits and vegetables in cup equivalents. A cup equivalent is generally the edible portion of a fruit or vegetable that will fit in a 1-cup measuring cup. Researchers also use the data to create baskets of products that would satisfy the 2 cup equivalents of fruit and the 2.5 cup equivalents of vegetables recommended for a person on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. In 2016, it was possible to meet these recommendations for about $2.10 to $2.60 per day. One basket in this cost range contains 1 cup equivalent each of watermelon and canned pears (packed in juice) as well as 1 cup equivalent of canned tomatoes and ½ cup equivalent each of potatoes, frozen spinach, and canned black beans. This example basket and others appear in the Amber Waves article, “Americans Still Can Meet Fruit and Vegetable Dietary Guidelines for $2.10-$2.60 per Day,” published in June 2019.

Brazil projected to outpace other top beef-exporting countries over the next decade

Monday, July 15, 2019

In 2018, Brazil was the world’s largest exporter of beef, providing close to 20 percent of total global beef exports, outpacing India, the second-largest exporter, by 527,000 metric tons carcass weight equivalent (CWE). Moreover, USDA projects that Brazil will continue its export growth trajectory for the next decade, reaching 2.9 million metric tons, or 23 percent of the world’s total beef exports, by 2028. Increased beef demand worldwide has encouraged increased production. China and Hong Kong remain the top two destinations for Brazil’s beef exports, accounting for 44 percent of Brazil’s total beef shipments in 2018. China in 2012 lifted a Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-related ban on Brazilian beef and has since become a top importer. With an increase in the number of Brazil’s beef plants authorized to export to China, exports are expected to increase further in 2019 and over the next decade. In comparison with Brazil, the United States ranks fourth in global beef exports and represented 14 percent of total beef exports in 2018. This chart appears in the July 2019 Amber Waves article, “Brazil Once Again Becomes the World’s Largest Beef Exporter.”

Contracts governed one-third of the value of agricultural production in 2017, with a concentration in livestock

Friday, July 12, 2019

Contracts are widely used in the production and sale of U.S agricultural commodities. Contracts provide farmers with a tool for managing income risks. Farmers also use contracts to obtain compensation for higher product quality, specify outlets for products, and provide assurance of sales for debt financing. Processors use contracts to ensure timely flows of inputs and greater control over the characteristics and consistency of the products they acquire. In 2017, 49 percent of livestock were raised under contract agreements—usually between farmers and processors—while contracts governed 21 percent of crop production. The share of crops produced under contract has declined in recent years as farmers turned to other methods for managing risks, such as diversification, hedging through futures markets, and investing in storage. This chart appears in the December 2018 report America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2018 Edition and the July Data Feature of the ERS Amber Waves magazine, “Marketing and Production Contracts Are Widely Used in U.S. Agriculture.”

Low sugar prices on the world market help spur Brazil’s ethanol production

Thursday, July 11, 2019

In 2017/18, global sugar production reached record levels, leading to a sharp and sustained drop in sugar prices on the world market. Lower global sugar prices have translated to diminished returns for sugar producers. Brazil’s sugarcane sector has adapted to low returns for sugar exports by processing a higher share of sugarcane for ethanol production. In 2018/19, only about one-third of sugarcane harvested in Brazil’s main Center-South Region was crushed for sugar production—a substantially lower share than in the past decade. The remainder was processed into ethanol. This change in sugarcane usage represents a 26-percent decrease in sugar use relative to 2017/18 and a 16-percent increase in ethanol use. In Brazil, hydrous ethanol has increased its market share against gasoline for the past several years, as most Brazilians drive flex fuel vehicles (FFV)—cars that can use both gasoline which includes ethanol in its blend or pure hydrous ethanol. This extensive use of ethanol is economically feasible as ethanol has grown increasingly competitive against rising gas prices, particularly in the Sao Paulo and Center-South fuel markets, which are close to sugarcane ethanol processing facilities. Increased ethanol production in Brazil also influences the U.S. ethanol market because Brazil is a major importer of U.S.-produced ethanol. This chart appears in the ERS Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook report released in June 2019.

Consumers in much of the United States had access to a third food store within 20 miles of their homes in 2015

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Distance from a person’s home to the nearest food store (supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store) indicates the ease of access to a major source of a variety of healthful foods. However, a food store with no close-by competitors may not offer the best price, quality, or selection of products. ERS researchers used a variety of data sets to calculate distances between households’ residences and the nearest and third-nearest food stores for U.S. census tracts. Census tracts where the population-weighted center of the tract (i.e., based on where people live within the tract) was within 5 miles of the nearest food store and between 10 and 20 miles from the third-nearest food store were concentrated in the Midwest and portions of the eastern half of the United States. The majority of census tracts where the population-weighted center was within 5 miles of the nearest food store, but more than 20 miles from the third-nearest food store were in portions of the Great Plains section of the Midwest and the Southwest. This chart appears in “U.S. Shoppers’ Access to Multiple Stores Varies by Region” in the June 2019 edition of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Agricultural research spending from the private sector has increased while spending from the public sector fell

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Historically, public institutions often played a direct role in developing new agricultural technologies and encouraging their commercialization and adoption by farmers. Levels of public investment in research and development (R&D) increased through the early 1980s. However, since then, growth rates in public-sector R&D have been generally low. Until 2003, private-sector investment was comparable to, or moderately higher than, public-sector investment—though growth in private-sector investment had been more variable. After 2003, however, public and private research investments began to diverge rapidly. Total private agricultural and food R&D doubled between 2003 and 2014, while public R&D fell. By 2010, private R&D for agricultural inputs alone surpassed the public level for all agricultural research, which also includes research in areas not directly related to crop and livestock production. Public and private agricultural research efforts are often complementary, rather than competitive. The private sector focuses mainly on R&D related to marketable goods and technologies, with a large share of investments going to the food manufacturing industry, which has little impact on agricultural productivity. The private sector also dominates farm machinery research. On the other hand, public-sector research efforts are more likely to be applied to areas with large social benefits, such as environmental protection, nutrition, and food safety. This chart appears in the ERS data product Agricultural Research Funding in the Public and Private Sectors, updated February 2019.

U.S. rice imports are projected to reach a record high in the 2019-20 marketing year

Monday, July 8, 2019

U.S. rice imports are projected to reach record levels in the 2019/20 marketing year (August–July). The 2.92 billion pounds of projected rice imports in 2019/20 are more than double the levels from 15 years ago. Imports are projected to account for more than 22 percent of domestic and residual use of rice in 2019/20. Aromatic and other specialty varieties from South Asia and Southeast Asia, which are not currently produced in the United States, account for the bulk of the imported rice, and these imports show long-term growth trends. The latter trends are driven by U.S. population growth, changing demographics, and greater restaurant sales. Additional recent growth has been due to the restoration of imports from China. Since May 2018, China has returned as a key supplier of medium- and short-grain rice to Puerto Rico. China supplied the bulk of Puerto Rico’s rice in 2006/07 and 2007/08, but was largely absent from the market for a decade. Increased imports from China represent over 90 percent of overall growth in U.S. rice imports in 2018/19 over 2017/18. This chart is drawn from data contained in the ERS Rice Outlook report released in June 2019.

USDA’s Summer Food Service Program served 2.7 million children in 2018

Friday, July 5, 2019

In 2018, USDA’s Summer Food Service Program provided meals to approximately 2.7 million children on an average operating day in July, the peak month for program operations. Meals were served at 49,795 USDA-approved sites. These sites are eligible to offer free USDA-funded meals and snacks if the sites operate in areas where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the Federal poverty level, or if more than half of the children served by the site meet this income criterion. Schools, libraries, camps, parks, playgrounds, housing projects, community centers, churches, and other public locations where children gather in the summer all qualify as USDA-approved sites. Enrichment activities are often offered along with the meals and snacks. Many low-income children also obtain free meals while school is out through the Seamless Summer Option of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. This chart is from the Child Nutrition Programs: Charts topic page on the ERS website, updated in June 2019.

Cover crops and rotational grazing are more widely used by organic producers

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Under USDA organic regulations, farmers who shift to organic farming systems must make changes across the spectrum of their production inputs and practices. Organic producers rely on complex rotations, cover crops, and nonchemical practices for pest and nutrient management, such as biological pest management. Practices associated with soil health—including the use of cover crops and rotational grazing—are more widely used in organic farming systems than in conventional systems. Nearly 40 percent of all organic field and specialty crop producers used cover crops in 2014, higher than among conventional producers (7 percent and 11 percent, respectively) in 2012. For livestock, USDA organic regulations require that organic dairy cows and other ruminant livestock obtain part of their dry matter intake, or forage, from pasture during the grazing season, while many conventional dairy operations did not use any forage from pasture as part of their feeding mix. Rotational grazing—managing where and when livestock graze to prevent overgrazing and to optimize pasture growth—is a soil-health strategy that is also used more frequently in the organic dairy sector. In 2014, 65 percent of organic livestock producers used rotational grazing, compared with 22 percent of conventional livestock producers in 2012. This chart appears in the May 2019 ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019.

China’s increased soybean imports from Brazil and Canada do not fully offset lost U.S. imports

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Soybeans are the largest and most concentrated segment of global agricultural trade. In March 2018, China proposed a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans and implemented the tariffs in July 2018. In the first half of the Chinese marketing year for soybeans (October 2018–March 2019), Chinese imports of U.S. soybeans fell by nearly 22 million metric tons, down 89 percent relative to the same period in 2017/18. To offset the decline in U.S. soybean imports, China increased imports from Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Canada. China’s 11.5-million metric ton increase in imports of soybeans from Brazil was large enough to offset roughly half of the lost imports from the United States. Additionally, China increased its imports from Canada by 1.7 million metric tons. In total, however, increased shipments from Brazil and Canada did not offset the decline in imports of U.S. soybeans. China’s soybean imports were nearly 9 million metric tons (20 percent) lower in October 2018 to March 2019 than the same period in 2017/18. This chart appears in the ERS report, Interdependence of China, United States, and Brazil in Soybean Trade, released in June 2019.

Cost of a home-grilled cheeseburger up 8 cents from last year

Monday, July 1, 2019

If your July 4 cookout includes cheeseburgers, they will be a bit pricier than last year’s burgers. In May 2019 (latest available prices), the ingredients for a home-prepared quarter-pound cheeseburger totaled $1.75 per burger, with ground beef making up the largest cost at $0.96 and cheddar cheese accounting for $0.33. This same cheeseburger would have cost $1.67 to prepare in May 2018, an increase of 4.8 percent. Retail prices for one pound quantities of all of the ingredients, with the exception of bread, were higher in May 2019 compared with May 2018. Higher ground beef prices accounted for half of the 8-cent increase between 2018 and 2019, and cheddar cheese costs were 1 cent more per burger in May 2019. Iceberg lettuce and tomato prices rose the most—14.5 and 8.8 percent, respectively—but the small amount of these toppings added just 3 cents to per burger costs. More information on ERS’s food price forecasts can be found in ERS’s Food Price Outlook data product, updated June 25, 2019.

Corn prices rise sharply amidst crop progress and planting uncertainties

Friday, June 28, 2019

The corn “spot price” rose sharply in May as successive USDA crop progress reports showed corn plantings falling behind multi-year averages. Spot prices are those paid for immediate delivery, while futures prices are exchange-traded agreements to sell a commodity at a future price. Although corn spot and futures prices normally reach seasonal highs in the spring because of uncertainties about the crop size, the price increase in spring 2019 was far larger than in recent years. Corn prices in early June were nearly a dollar above prices in early May, an increase of over 20 percent. Prices have not been this high since June 2016. Whereas, normally, nearly all of a year’s corn acres are planted by the first week of June, only about 67 percent of expected 2019 corn acres were planted by the first week of June 2019. The high market prices reflect uncertainties about whether some of the remaining acres will be planted late, planted to a different crop, or not planted at all. Ongoing trade negotiations and the new USDA Market Facilitation Program—created to assist farmers affected by recent trade disputes—likely added to the uncertainty about how farmers would respond. This chart is based on data in the ERS Feed Outlook released in June 2019.

High rates of disability among farmers are concentrated in the South

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Farmers face various occupational hazards (such as machinery, livestock, and chemicals) that can lead to temporary or permanent disabilities. The U.S. Census Bureau defines disabilities as having at least one of the following health difficulties: vision, hearing, physical, cognitive, self-care (difficulty dressing or bathing), or independent living (difficulty performing errands, such as visits to the doctor’s office or shopping). Recent ERS research estimated that an average of about 20 percent of U.S. farmers (395,000 people) had a disability at some point between 2008 and 2016. The probability of disability among farmers increased with age but was lower for farmers who had higher education levels, were female (compared to male), or were married (compared to unmarried). The most common disabilities included physical (10 percent of farmers) and hearing (8 percent of farmers). Average disability rates varied by State. For example, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa were in the quintile with the lowest disability rates on average (12.3 percent to 16.3 percent), while Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee were in that with the highest farmer disability rates (23.0 percent to 27.1 percent). This chart appears in the April 2019 Amber Waves finding, “Disabilities in the U.S. Farm Population.”

Charts of Note header image for left nav