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Following the Sun: solar energy development varies by region

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Solar energy development has been concentrated in the Atlantic and West regions of the United States, especially in California, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. These States are among those with policies that have promoted renewable energy development—much of it occurring in rural areas. Between 2016 and 2020, utility-scale solar capacity in rural areas more than doubled, increasing to 45 gigawatts, 3.7 percent of U.S. electric power capacity, and the number of solar projects increased from 2,316 to 3,364. Roughly 70 percent of the solar projects installed between 2009 and 2020 in rural areas were located on agricultural land. About 336,000 acres of rural land were estimated to have been directly affected by solar development. For more about the expansion of solar and wind in rural areas of the contiguous United States, the regional distribution of renewable energy development, and the land cover change associated with development, see the USDA, Economic Research Service report Utility-Scale Solar and Wind Development in Rural Areas: Land Cover Change (2009–20), released in May 2024.

Energy development payments to farmers vary by region

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Energy markets experienced significant shifts beginning in the early 2000s, with price increases and technological improvements leading to a dramatic increase in oil and natural gas production, as well as wind energy development. Research by USDA, Economic Research Service shows that the Plains region had the largest share of farm producers receiving energy payments from energy developers for on-farm energy production, 7.40 percent, and the largest average annual payment, $39,087, between 2011–20. This region includes States with significant oil, natural gas, and wind energy production, such as Texas and Oklahoma, as well as a high proportion of farmers who own the oil and gas development rights to their land. The West and Atlantic regions have a far lower share of producers who received payments on average, 2.18 and 2.82 percent, respectively. Significant oil and gas production in the Atlantic is limited to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and many producers in the West do not own their land’s oil and gas mineral rights, which can be legally separated from land rights. However, for those receiving payments, the average annual payments in the West and Atlantic regions were $31,821 and $29,015, respectively. These payments were near the national average of $30,482. The lowest proportion of farmers receiving energy payments was in the South, at 1.45 percent. Most Southern States have low potential for large-scale wind energy development and little onshore oil and natural gas development. In the Midwest, where there is little oil and gas production and more wind power, payments were less common, 2.34 percent, and producers received the lowest average payment, $10,953. Read more about the size, frequency, trends, and relative contribution of energy payments to farm operator income in the ERS report The Role of Commercial Energy Payments in Agricultural Producer Income, released in April 2024.

Energy payments to farmers rise and fall with oil prices

Monday, May 6, 2024

The amount of money farmers receive for leasing their land for the production of energy, such as oil, natural gas, or wind, varies significantly from year to year and has typically followed the price of oil. According to data analyzed by USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers, payments grew from an average of $38,788 in 2011 to $62,944 in 2013, when the price of oil averaged about $110 per barrel (adjusted for inflation), but then fell as low as $14,032 in 2020, when oil was near $40 per barrel. Not all farmers receive energy payments since many farm operators do not own their land, and even for those who do, subsurface mineral rights might have been separated from surface rights so that the farmer would not receive payments from on-farm energy production. For farmers who have historically benefited from energy, development of oil and natural gas have been a more common source of income than wind power, which is a younger industry. In the United States, about 3.5 percent of farm operations received energy payments between 2011 and 2020. Read more about the size, frequency, trends, and relative contribution of energy payments to farm operator income in the ERS report The Role of Commercial Energy Payments in Agricultural Producer Income, released in April 2024.

Agriculture accounted for an estimated 10.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2021

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Farming activities in the United States accounted for 10.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. From 2020 to 2021, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions remained nearly constant but decreased from 11.1 percent to 10.6 percent as a share of total U.S. emissions because of changes in other industries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2021, agriculture emitted 312.6 MMT as nitrous oxide (N2O), 278.4 MMT as methane (CH4), 44.7 MMT as on-farm carbon dioxide (CO2), and 35.7 MMT emitted indirectly through the electricity that the agricultural sector uses. Emissions include activities that emit nitrous oxide, such as fertilizer application and manure storage and management, and methane from enteric fermentation (a normal digestive process in animals). Of the common economic sectors in the United States defined by the Energy Information Administration, industry accounted for the largest portion of total greenhouse gas emissions (30.1 percent), followed by transportation, commercial, residential, agriculture, and U.S. territories (no specific consumption data can be attributed within the territories, so they are listed as a group). Total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 were 2.3 percent lower than they were in 1990. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service topic page Climate Change.

Emergency Relief Program payments aiding U.S. crop producers concentrated in North Dakota and Texas

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

In 2020 and 2021, the United States experienced 42 disaster events that each resulted in damages of at least $1 billion, including hurricanes, drought, and wildfires. The Emergency Relief Program (ERP) provides funds to assist commodity growers who suffered losses from natural disasters in 2020 and 2021. As of January 2023, cumulative payments made through the ERP totaled $7.3 billion. USDA disbursed a large portion of this total, $1.16 billion, to North Dakota producers of corn ($322 million), soybeans ($309 million), and wheat ($268 million) who experienced flooding in 2020 and drought in 2021. Texas producers also received a sizable portion of payments, with cotton farmers receiving $510 million of the $909 million disbursed in that State. Producers in North Dakota and Texas received most ERP payments for losses in revenue, quality, or production as a result of moisture and drought that occurred during the 2020 and 2021 crop years. The remaining top States receiving ERP payments were South Dakota ($567 million), Minnesota ($463 million), and Iowa ($408 million), which, together with North Dakota and Texas, represented approximately 48 percent of the total ERP payments disbursed as of January 2023. In early 2023, USDA launched a second phase of the ERP program, but disbursements from this phase are not included in these totals. This chart first appeared in the USDA, Economic Research Service report U.S. Agricultural Policy Review, 2022, published in November 2023.

Irrigated agricultural acreage has grown, shifting eastward, while western irrigated acreage has declined

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

U.S. irrigated agriculture has seen regional changes in the past two decades, influenced by a variety of factors. From 1997 to 2017, total U.S. irrigated agricultural acreage increased by 1.7 million acres. Irrigated acreage grew primarily in the eastern United States, where agriculture production is historically rain-fed, and declined in the West, where a generally arid climate necessitates irrigation for most crops. In the East, increased frequency and severity of drought have driven farmers to move from rain-fed to irrigated production. In the West, farmers have begun to take irrigated land out of production as surface water supplies dry up, and they face increasing competition for water from growing urban centers. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity, published in December 2021.

Hurricanes in 2017 cut Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector revenue by 19 percent

Thursday, April 27, 2023

In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused major destruction across Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector. The destruction of infrastructure, operations, and crops led to an exodus of farmworkers, which further hampered the farm sector’s ability to recover. Data from the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Census of Agriculture, conducted every 5 years, show how the hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico’s farm income and expenses. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of farms declined by nearly 38 percent. Gross cash receipts—the sum of the sale of agricultural commodities, cash from farm-related income, and participation in Government farm programs—fell 19 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from $718 million to $585 million. Cash expenses for Puerto Rican farms also decreased, falling 16 percent from $594 million to $500 million. Puerto Rico Planning Board’s data for net agricultural farm income, which includes non-cash income and expenses such as inventory changes, show a similar decline over the span of time that includes years not captured by NASS census data. From 2012 to 2020, net agricultural farm income (not adjusted for inflation) fell by $101 million. This chart first appeared in the USDA, Economic Research Service report, Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Economy in the Aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria: A Brief Overview, April 2023.

Use of recycled and reclaimed water sources for irrigation varies across the United States

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Water scarcity and water quality concerns in the United States have resulted in using nontraditional water sources, including recycled and reclaimed water, for irrigation. In 2018, producers used recycled and reclaimed water to irrigate crops on about 1.5 million acres in the United States, the most recent year for which data are available. Some acreage may use both recycled and reclaimed water for irrigation. California, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had the highest proportion of acreage where producers applied recycled or reclaimed water. In all these States, at least 3 percent of irrigated acreage relies on recycled or reclaimed water to meet crop irrigation needs. Reclaimed water for use on farms comes from sources such as industrial, municipal, and off-farm and on-farm animal operations. Municipal and on-farm animal operations were the most common sources of reclaimed water of the farms using reclaimed water in 2018. This chart was drawn from data collected by the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Agriculture, including electricity use, accounted for an estimated 11.2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020

Monday, July 11, 2022

Farming activities in the United States accounted for 11.2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. From 2019 to 2020, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions declined from 699 to 670 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent but increased from 10.6 percent to 11.2 percent as a share of the U.S. economy. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2020 agriculture produced 5.6 percent as nitrous oxide (N2O), 4.2 percent as methane (CH4), 0.8 percent as on-farm carbon dioxide (CO2), and 0.6 percent emitted indirectly through the electricity that agriculture consumes. Emissions come from cropping activities that emit nitrous oxide, such as fertilizer application and manure storage and management, and enteric fermentation (a normal digestive process in animals), which produces methane. Of the economic sectors in the United States defined by the Energy Information Administration, industry (excluding agricultural emissions) accounted for the largest portion of total greenhouse gas emissions (30.3 percent), followed by transportation, residential, commercial, agriculture, and U.S. territories (no specific consumption data can be attributed within the territories, so they are listed as a group). This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

Irrigated cropping patterns in the United States have evolved significantly since 1964

Friday, March 25, 2022

Irrigated cropping patterns have shifted significantly in the United States during the past 50 years. In 1964, alfalfa hay and cotton were the most widely irrigated crops, but acreage under those crops has stayed relatively constant since then. Meanwhile, irrigated acres planted in corn for grain and soybeans have increased substantially. In 1964, farmers planted less than 2 million acres of irrigated land in corn for grain. By 2017, irrigated acreage planted in corn grew to more than 12 million acres, making corn for grain the most commonly irrigated crop. Over the same period, irrigated acreage planted in soybeans also increased substantially, from fewer than 1 million acres to nearly 10 million acres. The growth in irrigated corn and soybean acreage reflects, in part, increasing demand for these crops as feedstock sources for bioenergy production and feed for livestock operations, both domestically and abroad. Irrigated corn and soybean expansion also reflects a broader eastward shift in irrigated production acreage over the past five decades. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report “Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity,” published December 28, 2021.

Use of surface or groundwater for irrigation depends on regional water availability, legal institutions, and infrastructure investments

Monday, March 14, 2022

Surface and groundwater are the two primary water supply sources for irrigated agriculture. Groundwater is pumped from aquifers, while surface water is diverted from natural streams, rivers, and lakes. The predominance of surface versus groundwater use varies regionally. Groundwater is the most common source of water applied for irrigation in the Mississippi Delta, Northern Plains and Southern Plains regions. The prevalence of groundwater-fed irrigated agriculture in the Northern and Southern Plains relates to the regions’ historically abundant groundwater resources. The High Plains Aquifer, the largest aquifer in North America and also known as the Ogallala Aquifer, underlies significant portions of the Plains regions. The Mississippi Delta region also has abundant groundwater resources that are relatively shallow, making groundwater-based irrigation less expensive. Irrigated agriculture relying on surface water is most prevalent in the Mountain and Pacific regions. The extent of surface water use for irrigation in these regions reflects past Federal, State, and local investments in water conveyance and storage infrastructure, as well as characteristics of the regions’ legal institutions which grant water rights based on historical beneficial use rather than ownership of land along streams and rivers. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report “Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity,” published December 28, 2021.

Use of irrigation systems vary by crop

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Irrigation methods vary by crop because of differences in production practices, crop value, water source, and soil characteristics. Irrigation application methods can be broadly categorized as either gravity or pressurized systems. Pressurized irrigation systems apply water under pressure through pipes or other tubing, while gravity irrigation systems use field slope to advance water across the field surface. In general, pressurized irrigation systems are more efficient than gravity irrigation systems under most field settings, as less water is lost to evaporation and seepage. Rice has the largest share of acres irrigated by gravity systems, which is related to the flooding requirements of most rice production systems in the United States. Peanuts have the largest proportion of acres irrigated by pressurized systems. Peanut cultivation is concentrated in the Southeastern United States (i.e., Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), where the prevalence of sandy, well-drained soils makes gravity irrigation methods generally unsuitable because of seepage losses. Pressurized systems are also prevalent among high-value specialty crops, such as vegetables and orchards. Pressurized irrigation systems, particularly low-flow micro irrigation systems, are generally more expensive than gravity irrigation systems, precluding their use among lower value crops. Pressurized systems are also more prominent among crops concentrated in regions more reliant on groundwater, including irrigated corn across the Eastern and Central United States. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report “Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity,” published December 28, 2021.

Per acre water use in irrigated farmland shows a declining trend

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The importance of irrigation for the U.S. agricultural sector has evolved significantly over the past century. Irrigated acreage in the country has grown from fewer than 3 million acres in 1890 to more than 58 million acres in 2017. The expansion of irrigated acreage during this period reflects Federal, State, and local investment in irrigation infrastructure to deliver surface water to farms and ranches. Additionally, this expansion is partly due to advancements in well drilling and pumping technologies, which have facilitated growth in groundwater-based irrigated agriculture. Since 1969, the amount of water used per acre irrigated has decreased substantially. The average water use per acre irrigated was more than 2 acre-feet (1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons) in 1969, which declined to nearly 1.5 acre-feet by 2018. Efficient water application technologies, such as the transition from gravity-based to pressurized irrigation systems, have driven the reduction in water use per acre of irrigated land. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report “Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity,” published December 2021.

The distribution of U.S. irrigated acreage has shifted eastward since mid-20th century

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Regional distribution of U.S. irrigated acreage changed significantly from 1949 to 2017. Trends in irrigated cropping patterns, technological advances, water availability, and changing growing-season weather drove this evolution. The arid Mountain and Pacific regions consistently irrigated the most farmland until 2007, when irrigated acreage in the Northern Plains region surpassed acreage in the Pacific region. Irrigated acreage in the Mountain and Pacific regions remained relatively constant over the 70-year period, despite increasingly limited opportunities for additional water development and increasing competition for water from non-agricultural sectors. The Northern Plains region has experienced the most substantial increase in irrigated acreage, expanding from less than 2 million acres in 1949 to nearly 12 million acres in 2017. The expansion of irrigated acreage in the Northern Plains is related to advances in groundwater pumping technologies, the diffusion of center pivot irrigation application systems, and the region’s abundant aquifer resources. The Southern Plains region experienced similar growth in irrigation until the 1980s, when dwindling groundwater supplies resulted in irrigated acreage declines. The Mississippi Delta and Southeast regions also have expanded irrigated acreage since 1949 reflecting, in part, changing cropping patterns, abundant aquifer water supplies, and producer responsiveness to changing precipitation levels during growing seasons. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity, published December 2021.

Irrigation delivery organizations use a variety of methods to calculate on-farm water use

Monday, December 13, 2021

Irrigation organizations use a variety of methods to calculate on-farm water use so they can accurately track water use within their delivery systems. The methods used to calculate on-farm water use partially determine ways organizations can price water deliveries. For example, implementing volumetric water pricing is difficult unless organizations can directly meter on-farm water use. According to data collected in the USDA’s 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations, about 44 percent of irrigation water delivery organizations use direct metering to calculate on-farm water use, and about 42 percent of organizations use time-of-use estimation to determine water deliveries. The time-of-use method estimates the volume of water delivered based on the duration of deliveries and the characteristics of the conveyance infrastructure. About 17 percent of organizations calculate water deliveries based on self-reporting from irrigated farms and ranches. Many organizations use more than one method to determine on-farm water use. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report Irrigation Organizations: Water Storage and Delivery Infrastructure, published October 2021.

Large irrigation organizations are most likely to own water storage infrastructure

Monday, November 29, 2021

Water storage infrastructure includes dams and reservoirs that provide a way to store water across seasons and years to meet the demands of irrigators. According to data collected in the USDA’s 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations, less than 20 percent of water delivery organizations own and manage their own water storage reservoirs. The remaining water delivery organizations rely on natural streamflow or storage infrastructure owned by State or Federal agencies or other irrigation organizations. Large irrigation organizations, defined as those organizations that serve more than 10,000 irrigable acres, are the most likely to own water storage infrastructure. Almost 37 percent of large irrigation organizations have at least one water storage reservoir. Meanwhile, 21 percent of medium organizations and 10 percent of small organizations, have at least one reservoir. Storage infrastructure is particularly important in snowpack-dependent basins where the timing of spring runoff does not align with peak irrigation water demand. The role of water storage infrastructure will be critical as snowpack decreases, snowmelt runoff shifts to earlier in the growing season, and water demand increases. This chart can be found in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Irrigation Organizations—Water Storage and Delivery Infrastructure, published October 19, 2021.

Cost cited as major reason for not lining canals that carry water to farms, ranches in 2019

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Irrigation organizations that deliver water to farms and ranches use main and lateral canals, tunnels, and pipelines to transport water from natural waterways, reservoirs, or other infrastructure to irrigated farms and ranches. Transporting water to farms and ranches can result in conveyance losses, or water that is unavailable for irrigation use because of evaporation or seepage. Lining water canals with quasi-impermeable materials, such as concrete or plastic membranes, can reduce conveyance losses as less water is lost to seepage. However, the cost of lining canals may be prohibitively high for many irrigation organizations. According to data collected in the USDA’s 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations, almost 76 percent of water delivery organizations cite expense as a reason for leaving conveyance infrastructure unlined. In some scenarios, lining canals may not be feasible or warranted. For example, unlined canals may beneficially recharge aquifers or soil and geologic attributes may minimize seepage losses. A smaller percentage of organizations cite those as reasons for not lining main and lateral canals. This chart can be found in the USDA, Economic Research Service report, Irrigation Organizations—Water Storage and Delivery Infrastructure, published October 19, 2021.

Use of pressurized irrigation systems in the western United States roughly doubled from 1984 to 2018

Monday, September 13, 2021

There are two methods to apply irrigation water to crops: gravity or pressurized irrigation systems. Gravity irrigation systems use on-field furrows, basins, or poly-pipe to advance water across the field surface through gravity means only. Pressurized systems apply water under pressure through pipes or other tubing directly to crops (e.g., sprinkler and micro/drip irrigation systems). Under many field conditions, pressurized irrigation systems use water more efficiently than gravity systems, as less water is lost to evaporation, deep percolation, and field runoff. Over the last 30 years, the number of acres irrigated using pressurized irrigation systems roughly doubled while the acreage irrigated using gravity systems declined substantially in the 17 Western States. In 2018, 72 percent of all irrigated cropland acres (28.96 million acres out of 40.31 million acres of total irrigated area) in 17 Western States used pressurized irrigation systems, up from 37 percent in 1984. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service topic page for Irrigation & Water Use, updated August 2021.

Climatic trends dampened productivity growth on Wisconsin dairy farms

Monday, November 16, 2020

In 2019, Wisconsin’s production of fluid milk was second only to California’s. According to data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin generated 30.6 billion pounds of milk that year, with milk sales totaling $5 billion. In recent years, Wisconsin dairy farms have been exposed to substantial weather volatility characterized by frequent droughts, storms, and temperature extremes (both hot and cold). This has resulted in considerable fluctuations in dairy productivity. Researchers from the Economic Research Service (ERS) among others, found that total factor productivity (TFP), which measures the rate of growth in total output (aggregate milk produced) relative to the rate of growth in total inputs (such as the number of cows, farm labor, feed, and machinery), increased at an average annual rate of 2.16 percent for Wisconsin dairy farms between 1996 and 2012. This increase was primarily driven, at an annual rate of 1.91 percent, by technological progress—such as improved herd genetics, advanced feed formulations, and improvements in milking and feed handling equipment. However, trends in rainfall and temperature variation were responsible for a 0.32 percent annual decline in the productivity of Wisconsin dairy farms during the same period. For example, an average increase in temperature of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit reduced milk output for the average Wisconsin dairy farm by 20.1 metric tons per year. This is equivalent to reducing the herd size of the average farm by 1.6 cows every year. This chart appears in ERS’s October 2020 Amber Waves finding, “Climatic Trends Dampened Recent Productivity Growth on Wisconsin Dairy Farms.”

Households are the largest users of fossil fuels in the U.S. food system

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Knowing where natural resource use accumulates is fundamental to understanding what factors influence resource-use decisions. A recent Economic Research Service (ERS) study estimated natural resource use by the U.S. food system in 2007 (2007 data were the latest available with the level of detail needed for the analysis). Farm production was the smallest user of fossil fuels (12 percent of fossil fuel use); households were the largest users (35 percent). Over 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in food production were from farms and ranches, followed by households, and then companies that distribute and market food. For forest products, the greatest use occurred during food processing and packaging, with paper-based packaging accounting for most of this use. Farm production was the dominant user of freshwater withdrawals due to irrigation, but slightly over a third of water use by the food system in 2007 occurred after the farm, including in household kitchens (20 percent) and in the energy industry (12 percent). This chart appears in the ERS report, Resource Requirements of Food Demand in the United States, and Amber Waves article, “A Shift to Healthier Diets Likely To Affect Use of Natural Resources,” May 2020.