ERS Charts of Note

Subscribe to get highlights from our current and past research, Monday through Friday, or see our privacy policy.

Get the latest charts via email, or on our mobile app for Download the Charts of Note app on Google Play and Download the Charts of Note app on the App Store


Incentive payments often boost adoption of conservation practices

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Under the Agricultural Act of 2014, Congress provided an estimated $28 billion in mandatory 2014-18 funding for USDA conservation program payments that encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices. If farmers would have adopted the practice even without financial incentive, however, the practices are not “additional,” and the payments provide income for farmers without improving environmental quality. Some farmers have adopted specific conservation practices without receiving payments because doing so reduces production costs or preserves the long-term productivity of their farmland (e.g., conservation tillage). Many other farmers have not adopted conservation practices, presumably because the cost of doing so exceeds expected onfarm benefits, the value of which can vary based on many factors, including soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and risk aversion. Since the value of onfarm benefits can vary widely across practices and farms, identifying which farmers will adopt a conservation practice only if they receive a payment is not straightforward. Additionality tends to be high for practices that are expensive to install, have limited onfarm benefits, or onfarm benefits that accrue only in the distant future (e.g., soil conservation structures, buffer practices, and written nutrient management plans). Practices that can be profitable in the short term are more likely to be adopted without payment assistance and tend to be less additional (e.g., conservation tillage). Research indicates that the likelihood a payment will result in additional environmental benefit increases as the implementation cost of the conservation practice increases (such as soil conservation structures) and its impact on farm profitability declines. This chart is based on data from the ERS report, Additionality in U.S. Agricultural Conservation and Regulatory Offset Programs, ERR-170, July 2014.

Costs of restoring and preserving wetlands vary across the United States

Friday, April 10, 2015

USDA’s costs of restoring and preserving new wetlands across the contiguous United States range from about $170 to $6,100 per acre, with some of the lowest costs in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and the highest in major corn-producing areas and western Washington and Oregon. To analyze conservation program expenditures, ERS researchers generated county-level estimates of wetland costs for each of the major wetland regions as designated by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (outlined in black in the map), using primarily NRCS Wetland Reserve Program contract data. Variations in costs are driven by differences in land values and the complexity of restoring hydrology and wetland ecosystems. Information about how the costs of restoring and preserving wetlands vary spatially (together with the relative benefits) can inform wetland targeting policies within States/regions and across the U.S. This map is found in the ERS report, Targeting Investments to Cost Effectively Restore and Protect Wetland Ecosystems: Some Economic Insights, ERR-183, February 2015.

"No-till" practices are used on over half of major cropland acres

Friday, December 5, 2014

Soil health improves when farmers refrain from disturbing the soil. While no-till production systems are increasingly used on land in corn, soybeans, and wheat—the three largest U.S. crops by acreage—they are not necessarily used every year. Field-level data, collected through the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, show that farmers often rotate no-till with other tillage systems. Farmers growing wheat (in 2009), corn (in 2010), and soybeans (in 2012) were asked about no-till use in the survey year and the 3 previous years. No-till was used continuously over the 4-year period on 21 percent of surveyed acres. On almost half of the cropland surveyed, farmers did not use no-till. Some of the benefit of using no-till, including higher organic matter and greater carbon sequestration, is realized only if no-till is applied continuously over a number of years. Nonetheless, because tilling the soil can help control weeds and pests, some farmers rotate tillage practices much like they rotate crops. This chart is drawn from data reported in ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, updated in December 2014.

Environmental vulnerability varies across the Chesapeake Bay watershed

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest and most biologically diverse estuary, and its watershed covers 64,000 square miles across 6 States (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established limits for nutrient and sediment emissions from point (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) and nonpoint (e.g., agricultural runoff) sources to the Chesapeake Bay in the form of a total maximum daily load (TMDL). Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrient emissions in the watershed. About 19 percent of all cropped acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are critically undertreated, meaning that the management practices in place are inadequate for preventing significant losses of pollutants from these fields. Critically undertreated acres are not distributed among the four sub-basins in the same way as cropland. For example, the Susquehanna watershed contains 69 percent of critically undertreated acres but only 41 percent of cropland. Targeting conservation resources to highly vulnerable regions could improve the economic performance of environmental policies and programs. This chart displays data found in the ERS report, An Economic Assessment of Policy Options To Reduce Agricultural Pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, ERR-166, June 2014.

Most U.S. corn acres at risk of nitrogen losses to the environment

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Corn is the most widely planted crop in the U.S. and the largest user of nitrogen fertilizer. By using this fertilizer, farmers can produce high crop yields profitably; however nitrogen is also a source of environmental degradation when it leaves the field through runoff or leaching or as a gas. When the best nitrogen management practices aren’t applied, the risk that excess nitrogen can move from cornfields to water resources or the atmosphere is increased. Nitrogen management practices that minimize environmental losses of nitrogen include applying only the amount of nitrogen needed for crop growth (agronomic rate), not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring, and injecting or incorporating fertilizer into the soil rather than leaving it on top of the soil. In 2010, about 66 percent of all U.S. corn acres did not meet all three criteria. Nitrogen from the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and Lake States (regions that together account for nearly 90 percent of U.S. corn acres) contribute to both the hypoxic (low oxygen) zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to algae blooms in the Great Lakes. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres, 2001-10, EB-20, November 2012.

Many factors, including conservation payments, influence the adoption of conservation practices

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Federal Government spent more than $6 billion in fiscal 2013 on conservation payments to encourage the adoption of practices addressing environmental and resource conservation goals, but such payments lead to additional improvement in environmental quality only if those receiving them adopted conservation practices that they would not have adopted without the payment. Some farmers have adopted specific conservation practices without receiving payments because doing so reduces production costs or preserves the long-term productivity of their farmland (e.g., conservation tillage). Many other farmers have not adopted conservation practices, presumably because the cost of doing so exceeds expected onfarm benefits, the value of which can vary based on many factors—soil, climate, topography, crop/livestock mix, producer management skills, and risk aversion. Since the value of onfarm benefits can vary widely across practices and farms, identifying which farmers will adopt a conservation practice only if they receive a payment is not straightforward, but research indicates that the likelihood a payment will result in additional environmental benefits increases as the implementation cost of the conservation practice increases and its impact on farm profitability declines. This chart is found in the ERS report, Additionality in U.S. Agricultural Conservation and Regulatory Offset Programs, ERR-170, July 2014.

Herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybean growers more likely to practice conservation tillage

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

By leaving at least 30 percent of crop residue covering the soil surface after all tillage and planting operations, conservation tillage (including no-till, ridge-till, and mulch-till) reduces soil erosion, increases water retention, and reduces soil degradation and water/chemical runoff. Conservation tillage also reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture. By 2006, approximately 86 percent of land planted with herbicide tolerant (HT) soybeans was under conservation tillage, compared to only 36 percent of conventional soybean acres. Differences in the use of no-till were just as pronounced. While approximately 45 percent of HT soybean acres were cultivated using no-till technologies in 2006, only 5 percent of the acres planted with conventional seeds were cultivated using no-till techniques, which are often considered the most effective of all conservation tillage systems. Cotton and corn data exhibit similar, though less pronounced, patterns. This chart is found in “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops by U.S. Farmers Has Increased Steadily for Over 15 Years” in the March 2014 Amber Waves online magazine.

Crop insurance premium subsidies now subject to environmental compliance

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 2014 Farm Act adds crop insurance premium subsidies to the list of benefits that could be withheld for noncompliance with conservation provisions, further supporting farmer incentives for environmental stewardship. Producers who fail to apply approved soil conservation plans on highly erodible cropland or who drain wetlands could become ineligible for all or part of a number of commodity programs, conservation programs, disaster assistance, and now crop insurance premium subsidies. In recent years, the value of such subsidies has increased as premium subsidy rates, crop insurance participation, and commodity prices all rose. On average, the Federal Government pays roughly 60 percent of crop insurance premiums, and about 80 percent of acreage for all major commodity crops is now covered by crop insurance. In 2012, crop insurance premium subsidies were roughly $6.7 billion or about 60 percent as large as commodity, conservation, and disaster assistance payments combined. This chart is found on the Conservation page in Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications, on the ERS website.

Agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions disproportionately high relative to share of economy

Monday, June 2, 2014

The agricultural sector accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2012. Given that agricultural production accounts for only about 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity. In agriculture, crop and livestock activities are unique sources of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, notably from soil nutrient management, enteric fermentation (a digestive process in animals that produces methane), and manure management. GHG emissions from agriculture have increased by approximately 17 percent since 1990. During this time period, total U.S. GHG emissions increased approximately 5 percent. This chart is found in ERS’ Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated May 2014.

Funding for conservation shifts towards working land conservation under the Agricultural Act of 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Between 2014 and 2018, the Agricultural Act of 2014 calls for mandatory spending on USDA conservation programs to decline by $200 million, or less than one percent of the $28 billion (for the entire 5 year period) that the Congressional Budget Office projects would have been spent if the 2008 Farm Act had continued through 2018. However, funding will shift from land retirement and conservation easement programs (e.g., Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and predecessors) to working land conservation programs (the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)). Combined funding for EQIP and CSP is projected to account for more than 50 percent of conservation spending during 2014-2018. These programs (and predecessors) accounted for just over 40 percent of spending during 2008-2013 and 32 percent during 2003-2007. Although CSP funding will be higher during 2014-2018 than during 2008-2013, a large share will go to servicing CSP contracts signed during 2008-2012. Under the 2014 Farm Act, USDA can enroll up to 10 million acres per year, down from 12.789 million acres per year under the 2008 Farm Act (2008-2012). This chart is found in the ERS analysis of 2014 Agricultural Act Impacts.

Rural counties drive the 2000-11 growth in U.S. onshore production of oil and natural gas

Friday, February 21, 2014

From 2000 to 2011, onshore gross withdrawals of natural gas in the lower 48 States increased by about 47 percent, reaching historic highs in every year after 2006. Over the same period, withdrawals of oil increased by 11 percent, with much of that growth occurring between 2007 and 2011. Rural counties (nonmetro noncore) accounted for almost all of the growth in oil production and a large share of the growth in gas production based on newly released data from ERS on County-level Oil and Gas Production in the U.S. While just over 35 percent of counties in the lower 48 States reported some level of oil or natural gas production during 2000-11, sizeable changes in production levels were more concentrated. Interestingly, the number of counties with an increase in oil and gas production of $20 million or more over the decade (218 counties) was nearly the same as the number (212) with a decrease of $20 million or more. This map is found in the Documentation and Maps page of the data product County-level Oil and Gas Production in the U.S., and also in the Amber Waves article, "Onshore Oil and Gas Development in the Lower 48 States: Introducing a County-Level Database of Production for 2000-2011."

Crop insurance subsidies provide continuing, although uneven, incentives for conservation compliance as direct payments end

Monday, February 10, 2014

Under environmental compliance, U.S. farmers who crop highly erodible land without applying an approved soil conservation system or who drain wetlands risk losing all or part of many Federal agricultural payments. The Agricultural Act of 2014 makes several changes which, on balance, continue to provide compliance incentives. Direct payments, which were paid to farmers regardless of economic conditions, were eliminated, but the act makes crop insurance premium subsidies subject to compliance, along with other continuing or new conservation and commodity programs. In some areas (those where the ratio of average insurance subsidies to direct payments for 2005-2010 exceeds 100 percent), the loss of direct payments will be more than offset by making crop insurance premium subsidies subject to compliance. In other areas, where direct payments were large relative to premium subsidies, compliance incentives will depend more heavily on new commodity programs. This map is found in the ERS report, The Future of Environmental Compliance Incentives in U.S. Agriculture, EIB-94, March 2012.

The Conservation Reserve Program is regionally concentrated

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) covered about 26 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of 2013, with an annual budget of roughly $2 billion (currently USDA’s largest conservation program in terms of spending). 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 is located 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 are found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta. This chart appears in ERS’s data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

Emerging energy industries have had varied impacts on local employment in rural areas

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

In rural areas of the United States, expansion of three emerging energy industries—unconventional natural gas extraction, wind power development, and corn-based ethanol production—has led, on average, to net gains in local employment over the last decade. Natural gas development created a 12-percent increase in employment from 1999 to 2007 in select counties with increased drilling. In counties with some wind turbine installation, employment grew less than 1 percent from 2000 to 2008; counties adding an ethanol plant had a similar change. The share of total job growth contributed by each energy industry also varied, with natural gas development accounting for roughly half of the total employment growth for the typical gas-producing county. Because of the small change in overall employment in ethanol plant counties, the employment effect of the typical ethanol plant within closely-linked industries also represented a large share of employment growth (32 percent). This chart is found in the ERS report, Emerging Energy Industries and Rural Growth, ERR-159, November 2013.

Conservation program support has grown and changed emphasis over the last two decades

Friday, December 6, 2013

USDA relies mainly on voluntary programs providing technical and financial support to encourage farmers to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. Land-retirement programs remove environmentally sensitive land from production, while working-land programs provide assistance to farmers who install or maintain conservation practices on land in crop production and grazing. Common practices include nutrient management, conservation tillage, field-edge filter strips, and fences to exclude livestock from streams. Support for conservation through USDA programs increased by roughly 70 percent between 1996 and 2012 and now amounts to roughly $5 billion annually. A large majority of the increase occurred in working land programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Security Program (2004-2008) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (2009-present). These and other programs, such as agricultural land preservation programs that purchase development rights from farmland owners to maintain land in agricultural uses, supplement land retirement programs and provide farmers with a wide range of options to support their conservation efforts. This chart is found in Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials on the ERS website.

Improving water-use efficiency remains a challenge for U.S. irrigated agriculture

Monday, May 6, 2013

U.S. agriculture accounts for 80-90 percent of the Nation’s consumptive water use (water lost to the environment by evaporation, crop transpiration, or incorporation into products). The 17 Western States account for nearly three-quarters of U.S. irrigated agriculture. While substantial technological innovation has already occurred in irrigation systems, significant room for improvement in farm irrigation efficiency still exists. Between 1994 and 2008, the combined share of Western irrigated acres using improved gravity-flow and low-pressure sprinkler systems has increased but the rate at which traditional irrigation systems have been replaced with more efficient, improved systems has slowed over the past decade. This chart comes from the Amber Waves September 2012 finding, Improving Water-Use Efficiency Remains a Challenge for U.S. Irrigated Agriculture.

Conservation structures are more common on highly erodible land

Friday, September 7, 2012

Conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program help farmers implement best management practices, including the installation of soil conservation structures and vegetative measures. Structures and vegetation such as terraces, grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, filter strips, and riparian buffers can reduce soil erosion and sedimentation and chemical runoff in local waterways, especially on highly erodible land (HEL). According to data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, erosion control structures and conservation buffers were more prevalent on HEL than on non-HEL, but adoption rates varied across commodities and conservation structure types. This chart can be found in the ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Edition, EIB-98, August 2012.

Farm program changes could affect environmental compliance incentives

Monday, July 16, 2012

Federal farm program payments help encourage good stewardship of natural resources through environmental compliance requirements. To maintain eligibility for most farm programs, farmers must follow an approved soil conservation plan on all highly erodible land used for crop production. Farmers who do not comply with these requirements, even on a small number of acres, risk losing some or all of their Federal farm commodity, conservation, and disaster payments, as well as access to Federal farm loan and loan guarantee programs. Since 2003, annual farm program payments subject to environmental compliance have fluctuated between $11 billion and $20 billion. Most of the variation can be attributed to countercyclical payments (CCP) and marketing loan benefits (MLB), which are triggered by low crop prices. Since 2007, high prices for most program crops have sharply reduced CCP and MLB payments from their 2005-06 levels. Direct payments have accounted for roughly half of the compliance incentive since 2008. If they are eliminated in the 2012 farm bill, farmers who do not receive conservation or disaster payments (the other major payments subject to environmental compliance) may have less incentive to continue meeting compliance requirements unless these payments are replaced by another type of commodity or insurance program subject to compliance. This chart appeared in the June 2012 issue of Amber Waves magazine.