Irrigation is critical to agriculture in the United States: 50 percent of the value of all crops sold comes from irrigated farms accounting for only 28 percent of all harvested cropland (USDA/NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture). Total farm sales for all farms in 2012 was $394.6 billion (averaging $187,097 per farm), while irrigated farms contributed $152.4 billion (averaging $514,412 per farm). Farm sales from crop production alone was at $212.4 billion for all farms (averaging $205,754 per farm) and $106.3 billion for irrigated farms (averaging $444,231 per farm). In the process, agriculture generally accounts for over 80 percent of water consumed (i.e., water withdrawn from surface or groundwater sources and lost to the immediate water environment through evaporation, plant transpiration, incorporation in products or crops, or consumption by humans or livestock). Irrigation is particularly important for agriculture in the 17 Western States, where irrigated farms account for about 71 percent of farm sales from all U.S. irrigated farms (averaging $571,757 per farm) and 71 percent of U.S. irrigated cropland acres.

Irrigated agriculture produces field crops, pasture, and horticulture crops on acres in the open, as well as horticulture under protection (in greenhouses, etc., with area measured in square-feet units). Based on the 2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (FRIS) of irrigated farms and their associated 2012 farm sales, irrigated horticulture farms across the U.S. accounted for $16.5 billion in farm sales, or about 12.1 percent of the farm sales for all irrigated farms. Farm sales for horticulture farms in the western States was at $6.9 billion (42.0 percent of the farm sales from all U.S. irrigated horticulture farms, and 7.1 percent of the farm sales from all western States' irrigated farms). Farms across the United States with horticulture under protection (HUP) accounted for $12.1 billion in farm sales, or about 8.8 percent of farm sales for all U.S. irrigated farms. HUP farms in the Western States accounted for $4.7 billion in farm sales (38.9 percent of the farm sales from all U.S. HUP farms, and 4.8 percent of the farm sales from all Western irrigated farms).

Irrigated farms use a wide variety of irrigation application systems. Nearly 39 percent of irrigated acres across the United States and 34 percent in the Western States are irrigated with gravity-based systems (e.g., gated-pipe furrow systems or flooding entire fields), while 72 and 77 percent of irrigated acres across the United States and the Western States, respectively, are irrigated with pressure-sprinkler systems (e.g., center-pivot sprinkler, drip/trickle or micro-flow spray systems). (Some acres are irrigated with both gravity and pressurized system types.) Both system types vary widely in their irrigation application efficiencies. Based on a categorization of acres irrigated using more efficient gravity and pressure-sprinkler systems, about 48.3 percent of total irrigated acres across the Western States and 50.4 percent of total irrigated acres across the U.S. make use of higher efficiency irrigation. While the use of conserving onfarm water-management practices—such as use of soil/plant moisture-sensing devices, commercial or government irrigation-scheduling services, and application of computer-based crop-growth simulation models that account for local weather conditions—can improve onfarm irrigation efficiencies, 2013 FRIS statistics continue to demonstrate that significant room still exists for continued improvement in farm irrigation efficiency.

Federal and State agencies and local water-management districts provide financial and technical assistance to producers to improve water delivery on farms (such as the lining of open-ditch irrigation systems) and/or promote the use of more efficient field-level irrigation application technologies (such as low-pressure sprinkler systems). Only about 8.5 to 8.7 percent of the 2013 irrigated farms across the United States (and for the Western States alone) participated in these programs during 2009-13. However, most irrigated farms (nearly 93 percent) financed their 2013 irrigation investments privately.

Most irrigated farms, 64 percent across the United States (and 67 percent for the Western States) are low-sales farms (under $150,000 in annual farm sales). Low- and moderate-sales farms together (farms with annual sales under $350,000) account for 75 and 78 percent of irrigated farms for the United States and the 17 Western States, respectively. Likewise, most farms that receive technical and/or financial assistance to improve irrigation efficiency or to conserve energy (from any Federal, State, or local assistance program) are also low- to moderate-sales irrigated farms, which account for 60 - 65 percent of the farms receiving technical assistance and from 55 - 59 percent of the farms receiving financial assistance, for the total United States and the Western States, respectively. However, it is the large-scale farms (those with $1,000,000 or more in farm sales) that use most of the irrigation water—these farms account for 61.5 percent of irrigation water applied across all U.S. irrigated farms, and 58 percent for irrigated farms in the West. For the Western States, the largest 22 percent of irrigated farms (those with farm sales of $350,000 and more) account for nearly 79 percent of applied irrigation water. Accordingly, by targeting financial and technical assistance programs more heavily to larger irrigated farms will potentially make a greater contribution to meeting water conservation and other environmental policy objectives.

For more details, see the Summary of Results.

Data Source and Scope

Data in the tables highlight the farm structural characteristics of U.S. irrigated agriculture across four farm-size classes by State based on data from USDA's 2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (FRIS). FRIS is conducted every 5 years by USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), following the year of the Census of Agriculture. For each FRIS, NASS summarizes irrigated agriculture characteristics in an online FRIS Summary Report, but it summarizes only selected characteristics and only at the State level. This ERS Data Product highlights the farm structural characteristics of irrigated agriculture across four farm-size typology groups by State, with special emphasis given to such characteristics as the adoption of more conserving/efficient irrigation technologies and water-management practices, measures of relative irrigation efficiency across farm typologies, the potential for continued efficiency/conservation progress, water use and cost differences, and irrigation investment and financial assistance across farm typology. Most irrigated farms and those that receive financial assistance to improve irrigation efficiency are small farms. But larger farms use the most irrigation water, and the largest 10 percent of irrigated farms in the 17 Western States and the largest 12 percent across the United States (those with $1,000,000 or more in farm sales) accounted for 58 percent and nearly 62 percent of total farm water applied in the West and across the U.S., respectively. In addition, about 52 percent of irrigated cropland (acres in the open) in the Western States and 50 percent across the United States continue to be irrigated with traditional, less-efficient irrigation application systems, while fewer than 20 percent of irrigators (in the West and across the United States) make use of the more-conserving onfarm water-management practices, such as use of soil/plant moisture sensors or commercial irrigation scheduling. For U.S. irrigated agriculture sustainability, opportunity still exists for significant onfarm conservation progress.

The tables found here are the sole source of information on U.S. irrigation characteristics by farm type and State. The data product provides information relevant to performance assessment of USDA/Federal resource policy goals, including assisting in the potential targeting of financial and technical assistance to meet water conservation and environmental policy objectives, and in helping to address the success of USDA small farm conservation and sustainability policy goals.

Summarized tables are grouped into three sections of sets of tables: Section I tables cover all irrigated farms; section II covers all irrigated horticulture farms; and section III covers irrigated horticulture under protection (HUP) farms. All tables identify specific irrigation characteristics for four farm-size classes, by State and region.

Tables in section I cover all FRIS irrigated farms, and are grouped into sets of tables that summarize 18 broad categories, ranging from total irrigation values to higher efficiency irrigation, to irrigated farms receiving technical/financial assistance designed to encourage onfarm water and energy conservation, to irrigation labor statistics, and to irrigation investment participation and expenditures by major irrigation investment category. A second and third section of tables summarize selected irrigation characteristics by farm-size class for all irrigated horticulture farms (Section II), and for only irrigated farms with horticulture under protection (HUP) (Section III). Irrigated area is measured by either "acres in the open" (for both non-horticulture and horticulture farms) or by "square-feet" for horticulture under protection. For irrigation on acres in the open, water applied is measured in terms of acre-feet units (with one acre-foot equivalent to 325,851 gallons), while irrigation water for HUP is initially measured in terms of applied gallons (as reported by FRIS). However, separate tables are provided which convert HUP water and total farm water applied (by water source) into acre-feet equivalent units. All tables identify specific irrigation characteristics for four farm size classes, by State and region.

The four farm-size classes used for this analysis were defined using "total farm sales" from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, carried over to FRIS (by observation). Farm-size classes are defined to be consistent with the ERS farm typology (see Updating the ERS Farm Typology, EIB-110, April 2013).

Farm-size class definitions used to examine structural characteristics of irrigated agriculture
Farm-size class (1 through 4)1 based on total annual farm sales Corresponding ERS farm typology definition2
1 = $0 to $149,999 Low-sales farms
2 = $150,000 to $349,999 Moderate-sales farms
3 = $350,000 to $999,999 Mid-size farms
4 = $1,000,000 and greater Large-scale farms
1Farm-size classes were defined using the value of the "total farm sales" variable from the 2012 Census of Agriculture applied to the 2013 FRIS data (by observation).
2Nonfamily corporate farms could not be identified with FRIS data.
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service. For more information on the ERS farm typology, see Updating the ERS Farm Typology, EIB-110, April 2013.

Methodology, Data Reliability, and Measures of Accuracy

The FRIS sample was a State level sample drawn for all 50 States. The sample design targeted a U.S. level sample size of 35,000 irrigated farms. A certainty stratum, with farms selected with probability one, was included in each State to ensure that the major irrigators in each State were sampled. The remaining strata were sampled systematically by acreage. The final national sample size was 34,966 farms; 2,095 selected from the certainty strata with the remainder from the non-certainty strata. The final survey reports processed and tabulated were for 20,109 farms (unexpanded), representing 229,237 farms (weighted) for all 50 States. The 2013 FRIS was conducted primarily by mail, with some data also collected by USDA/NASS's Electronic Data Reporting (EDR) via the Internet, telephone enumeration, and personal enumeration. For more details on FRIS statistical methodology, estimation, response rates, data reliability issues, and measures of accuracy, see Appendix A – Statistical Methodology, in the USDA publication 2013 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, Vol. 3, Special Studies, Part I, USDA.

For this analysis, several additional data reliability issues deserve some attention. First, for each of the summary data tables, a cell value of "D" indicates a disclosure issue due to "insufficient data for publication." Consistent with USDA/NASS data disclosure requirements for FRIS, summarized data could be published only if: i) the summary statistic was based on six or more surveyed farms; ii) the maximum value for an irrigation characteristic (by State and farm-size class) relative to the weighted State/farm-size class value was less than 45 percent; and iii) there exist no single "D" value within a column or row set which would allow a user to "add and subtract" from column/row totals to estimate a value for the single "D". Second, for all data tables summarizing a weighted-average statistic, coefficient of variation (CV) statistics were computed by farm-size class and by State (and region). Coefficient of variation values were computed as [(standard error of the estimate divided by the estimate) x 100], and reported in the appropriate data tables using * for CV < 25; ** for 25 < CV < 50; *** for 50 < CV < 100; and **** for CV > 100. For most weighted-average statistic tables, CV values across farm-size classes and by State were generally less than 25 and most often less than 50, indicating often relatively low variability for irrigation characteristics across farm-size classes.

2013 FRIS irrigated farm numbers by farm-size class, for the U.S. and 17 Western states
FRIS sample results Farm-size class 1 (low sales) Farm-size class 2 (moderate sales) Farm-size class 3 (mid-size) Farm-size class 4 (large-scale) Total/all farm-size classes
All 50 States:
Actual FRIS farm observations 6,758 2,385 3,981 6,985 20,109
NASS expanded (represented) farms 146,924 25,156 29,910 27,247 229,237
17 Western States:
Actual FRIS farm observations 2,563 1,000 1,680 3,047 8,290
NASS expanded (represented) farms 113,420 17,997 21,234 16,785 169,436

Update and Revision History

The previous release of this data product—which summarized the farm-structural characteristics for irrigated farms in the 17 Western States based on USDA's 2008 and 1998 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Surveys—is available in a zipped archive file. Tables summarized irrigation characteristics for all irrigated farms and for the 17 Western States only, and did not include summarized characteristics for horticulture farms. In addition, farm-size classes for the 2008 and 1998 FRIS were based on a previous ERS farm typology (see the documentation included with the earlier data files for details). Comparisons of similar irrigation characteristics across farm classes in the 2013 and earlier FRIS data should be made with caution because of the different farm-size class definitions.

Reference Date

This document was prepared April 28, 2017.