50 fascinating facts about farming in America

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April 2, 2021
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50 fascinating facts about farming in America

Since just after World War II, the number of people employed in agriculture has dropped by half. Most of America's farms are small and nearly all are family-run—but they're also disappearing. In 1935, the number of farms peaked at almost 7 million. By 2019, that number had dropped to about 2.02 million farms.

COVID-19 put additional pressure on an already strained industry: In March 2020, farm bankruptcies jumped by 23%. And in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2020, 580 American farmers filed for chapter 12 bankruptcy protection. Issues during the pandemic included everything from breakdowns in the supply chain to the closures of processing plants.

To find out more about this complex and essential industry, Stacker compiled a gallery of 50 facts about U.S. farming. We've relied on authoritative sources that include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and industry and trade groups.

In 1870, about half of all Americans had jobs in agriculture, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that farmworkers comprise less than 1% of salary workers in the U.S. Nevertheless, production is still huge. U.S. farmers raise hundreds of millions of egg-laying hens, harvest millions of tons of fruits and vegetables, and keep the rest of the world supplied with corn, wheat, and soybeans. A single acre of land can grow 50,000 pounds of strawberries or 3,000 pounds of wheat, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation; and in 2020 alone, an estimated $135 billion in U.S. agricultural products were exported around the world despite disruptions to the supply chain.

Keep reading to find more fascinating information about farming in the United States.

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There are about 2 million US farms

Roughly 3 million people work for the country's more than 2 million farms. Nearly all of these farms are family-run.

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A farm classification is based on a monetary threshold

The USDA defines a farm as a place producing and selling at least $1,000 of agricultural products in a year (or one that would have under normal conditions). Farm size is measured by gross cash farm income or GCFI.

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90% of US farms are small

In the United States, a farm is considered small if its gross income is less than $350,000 a year. Nine out of 10 farms in the country rank as small, accounting for 52% of the land and 26% of production.

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Large-scale family farms represent just 2.5% of US farms but account for more than 50% of American produce

Large-scale family farms are those that earn between $1 million and $4.9 million a year. They comprise just 2.5% of U.S. farms—but account for over two-thirds of dairy production and more than half of fruit and vegetable production.

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Farmers in the US are overwhelmingly white

All but roughly 5% of American farmers are white, according to the 2017 federal census of U.S. farms. The number of Hispanic farmers has grown to 112,451, while only about 46,000 U.S. farmers are Black.

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One US farm can feed 166 people

Based on this average, farmers around the world will have to grow about 70% more food than they do now in order to meet demands by the year 2050. At that point, the global population is expected to increase by 2.2 billion.

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American farmland is worth $2 trillion

The U.S. has more than 900 million acres of farmland with a real estate value of more than $2 trillion. As the number of farms has decreased, the average land size for the average farm has increased.

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Women today comprise a third of all US farm operators

The number of women farm operators spiked by 27% between 2012 and 2017, according to the government's farming census. Today, more than half of all farms in this country boast at least one woman making business decisions.

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Agriculture represents 1% of our GDP

The top farm products in the U.S. are cattle, corn, and soybeans. Agricultural exports from the United States in 2019 were valued at about $135.5 billion.

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Commercial egg farms produce more than 65 billion eggs each year

A hen can lay about 250 eggs a year. China is the largest egg producer in the world, with roughly 160 billion a year.

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Soybean production is key to making crayons

Most of the soybeans grown in the U.S. go toward feeding livestock, but they're also used in the production of other goods like crayons. One acre of soybeans can produce 82,368 crayons.

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Every baseball requires 150 yards of wool

The United States is home to 47 breeds of sheep. One pound of wool can make 10 miles of yarn. Inside a baseball, the core is wrapped in 150 yards of wool yarn.

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Windbreaks provide protection for American fruit farms

Tall, dense lines of trees are often planted around the edges of fruit farms. They act as windbreaks to protect trees and help prevent soil erosion.

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45.6 million acres of US cropland was used for wheat in 2019

One bushel of wheat weighs about 60 pounds and contains about 1 million individual kernels. It can yield about 42 pounds of white flour, 60 pounds of whole wheat flour, about 45 24-ounces boxes of wheat flake cereal, or about 42 pounds of pasta. More than 45 million acres of cropland was used to grow wheat in 2019.

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The invention of the wheat combine in 1934 changed farming forever

American Hiram Moore's invention of the wheat combine allowed for the automated process of removing wheat heads from stems and separating out the kernels. Each head on a stem of wheat contains about 50 kernels. Wheat is ready to be harvested when it dries out and turns golden.

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Dairy cows in the US produced 218 billion pounds of milk in 2018

On average, a dairy cow produces 6.3 gallons of milk a day and 46,000 glasses of milk a year. It takes 350 squirts to make a gallon of milk. As with any mammal, to produce milk a cow must give birth. Calves are separated from their mothers so that milk can be siphoned off for commercial production. Dairy calves are typically impregnated every year.

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Net losses at US farms are on the rise

The number of U.S. farms reporting net losses between 2012 and 2017 rose 1.2% to 1.15 million. The number of farms reporting net profits dropped 8.3% to fewer than 900,000. The median household income among all farms was about $76,000 in 2017, higher than the median $61,000 for all households.

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Farmers are getting older

The average age of an American farmer is 58, up 1.2 years in half a decade. The average age of an organic farmer, meanwhile, is 52.

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Most farmers need outside work to make ends meet

Only two in five small farmers in the United States turn a profit each year, and about two-thirds work another job. Slightly more than half of U.S. farms are very small, with annual sales of less than $10,000.

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Less than 1% of US farmland is organic

The average size of an organic farm is 285 acres, far less than the average of 444 acres for all U.S. farms. The vast majority of the organic food consumed in the U.S. is imported.

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California farms 20% of America's organic land

California has 2,700 organic farms, about one-fifth of the country's total organic land. Only two other states—Wisconsin and New York—have more than 1,000 organic farms.

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Cotton across the South

Cotton is grown in 17 states from Virginia to California. Arizona alone grows enough cotton each year to make more than one pair of jeans for every American.

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The US accounts for 75% of global cranberry production

Nearly three-quarters of all cranberries are grown in the U.S., mostly in Wisconsin, as well as in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. It takes about 4,400 cranberries to make a gallon of juice.

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The US economy has left behind farm and ranch families

Farm and ranch families make up less than 2% of the U.S. population—down from 70% in 1840. That dramatic shift in America's workforce shows a complete metamorphosis in the country's economy, once largely dependent on agriculture.

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The US is the world's third-biggest food supplier

About 40% of the land in the United States is used for agriculture, including cropland and pastureland. U.S. farmers produce 10% of the world's wheat and 20% percent of the world's beef, pork, and lamb.

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US peanut farmers produce 3 million tons of peanuts each year

Peanut farmers in the U.S. produce their crops on about 1.5 million acres of land. About half the country's peanuts come from Georgia. Runner peanuts are used mostly in peanut butter, while Virginia and Spanish peanuts are often used for snacks and Valencia peanuts are used largely for roasting and boiling.

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Over 92% of land in Nebraska is farmland

With over 45 million acres of farmland, Nebraska has the highest percentage of land dedicated to farming in America. The rest of the top five states, in order, are South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa.

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Cattle represent US farming's biggest sector

Over 600,000 farms received most of their income from cattle production. However, the number of cattle operations fell 6% between 2007 and 2012. There were roughly 45 million cows in the U.S. in 1975; by 2014, that number fell to 29 million.

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Pennsylvania grows the most mushrooms

Roughly two-thirds of mushrooms grown in the U.S. come from Pennsylvania, with California and Florida coming in second and third for production. There are 300 edible species of mushrooms, 30 of which have been domesticated and 10 of which are produced commercially.

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Idaho grows a third of all US potatoes

There's a reason the potato is the state vegetable of Idaho. The state grows a full third of potatoes in the U.S., bringing in an estimated $27 billion a year. The state has almost 26,000 farms producing over 180 goods.

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The US is the world's leader in corn production

The United States accounts for a third of all corn grown globally and is the biggest corn exporter in the world. Other corn-producing giants are China and Brazil. The biggest corn-growing states in the U.S. are Iowa and Illinois.

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South Dakota grows the most sunflowers in the country

South Dakota farmers in 2018 grew 975 million pounds of sunflowers, followed by North Dakota with 739 million pounds. About 217,000 metric tons of sunflower seed oil was consumed in 2018 in the United States.

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Washington is the biggest grower of hops

Total U.S. production of hops, used in making beer, was about 107 million pounds in 2018. Washington state grew the most, at almost 77 million pounds, while a distant second was Idaho with roughly 16 million pounds.

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Contracts mitigate risk for American farmers

A third of U.S. farm production incorporates contracts to manage risk, price, quality, and markets. Production contracts are more common in livestock farming, including most poultry, egg, and hog farms. In a marketing contract, often used in tobacco and sugar beet farming, ownership of the commodity stays with the farmer during production. In a production contract, the buyer usually owns the commodity during production and the farmer is paid a fee.

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Texas has the most farms in the US

There are 248,416 registered farms and ranches in Texas. Women represent 37% of the state's 408,506 producers.

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Wisconsin stands to lose the most in a dying dairy industry

Wisconsin has nearly 8,000 dairy farms, more than any other state. But as struggles continue with declining milk prices, a transition to larger farms, international trade issues, and increased rates of suicide among farmers, the state lost more than 550 dairy farms in 2019 alone.

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U.S leads in GMOs

The United States has by far the highest acreage of genetically modified crops worldwide including maize, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, and potatoes. Nearly all U.S. soybeans are genetically modified to tolerate herbicides.

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Georgia isn't the biggest peach producer

Georgia might be known as the "Peach State," but California grows the most peaches. The Golden State produced 479,000 tons of peaches in 2018, the bulk of the nearly 652,000 tons grown nationwide.

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1.12 million tons of strawberries were grown in 2019

The United States grows the most strawberries of any country in the world, producing around 1.12 million tons in 2019. Most were grown in California, followed by Florida.

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Hemp is becoming a huge US cash crop once again

Hemp came to North America in 1606. The plant's myriad uses led to its use as a staple crop: Farmers were actually legally bound to grow hemp throughout the 1700s. The plant needs no pesticides and little water, and its long roots help prevent erosion and retain topsoil. Several states, including Colorado, Kentucky, and Vermont, allow farmers once again to grow hemp crops.

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The Dust Bowl swept away more than 100 million acres of soil

The Dust Bowl lasted for about a decade and left hundreds of thousands of people destitute. It was caused by intense drought and negligent farming practices that left land susceptible to wind erosion.

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Early settlers learned to grow maize from indigenous tribes

Farming began around 10,000 B.C. when nomadic tribes started growing crops. Among the earliest crops were wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and flax. In the U.S. early settlers grew barley, peas, and maize, which native American tribes taught the settlers how to grow.

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Tractors overtook horses and mules by 1954

In 1954, the number of tractors on farms surpassed the number of horses and mules for the first time. Technology and the use of tractors over animals marked the Second American Agricultural Revolution.

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Jethro Tull's seed drill

English agricultural engineer Jethro Tull invented the seed drill in 1701. Before that, seeds were scattered by hand. Tull's drill allowed seeds to be planted efficiently in rows and helped American agriculture flourish.

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Farming provides millions of American jobs

Some 40% of the world's population works in agriculture, making it the largest employer on the planet. Farming in the United States directly employs more than 2.6 million people.

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Goats are a growing enterprise in the U.S.

Goats were one of the first animals to be domesticated, and they are raised for their wool, milk, and meat. Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have the most meat goats, while Texas, California, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New York have the largest dairy goat herds.

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Organic profits throughout the U.S. are on the climb

Organic farming typically requires 2.5 times more labor than conventional farming. But organic products typically command higher prices and produce 10 times more profit.

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CSAs across the US are waning in popularity

Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, was popular in the 1990s and early 2010s. With a CSA, a consumer subscribes to buy a farm's produce directly, typically in weekly deliveries. But CSAs are declining as large grocery chains carry more organic food and online meal kit subscriptions have proliferated.

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Most farmers' markets source products within 50 miles

Nearly all U.S. farmers who sell at farmers' markets work within 50 miles of where they sell their produce. Farmers who supply supermarkets typically live 1,500 miles away. On average, farmers get about 17 cents of every dollar that store shoppers spend on food; those at farmers' markets take home more than 90% of food dollars.

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Farm output has soared in the last 70 years

Technological innovations in animal and crop genetics, chemicals, equipment, and farm organization continued, even as the amount of land and labor in farming fell. Still, total U.S. farm output more than doubled between 1948 and 2015.

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