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Natural Resource Sector, Agriculture
The United States contains some of the best cropland in the world. Cultivated farmland constitutes 19 percent of the land area of the country and makes the United States the world’s richest agricultural nation. In part because of the nation’s favorable climate, soil, and water conditions, farmers produce huge quantities of agricultural commodities and a variety of crops and livestock.
The United States is the largest producer of corn, soybeans, and sorghum, and it ranks second in the production of wheat, oats, citrus fruits, and tobacco. The United States is also a major producer of sugar cane, potatoes, peanuts, and beet sugar. It ranks fourth in the world in cattle production and second in hogs. The total annual value of farm output increased from $55 billion in 1970 to $202 billion in 1996. Farmers in the United States not only produce enough food to feed the nation’s population, they also export more farm products than any other nation. Despite this vast output, the U.S. economy is so large and diversified that agriculture accounted for only 2 percent of annual GDP and employed only 3 percent of the workforce in 1998.
During the 20th century, many Americans moved from rural to urban areas of the United States, resulting in large population decreases in farming regions. Even though the number of farms has been declining since the 1930s, overall production has increased because of more efficient operations. Bigger farms, operated as large businesses, have increasingly replaced small family farms. The owners of larger farms make greater use of modern machinery and other equipment. By the 1990s, farm operations were highly mechanized. By applying mechanization, technology, efficient business practices, and scientific advances in agricultural methods, larger farms produce great quantities of agricultural output using small amounts of labor and land.
In 2000 there were 2,172,080 farms in the United States, down from a high of 6.8 million in 1935. As smaller farms have been consolidated into larger units, the average farm size in the United States increased from about 63 hectares (about 155 acres) to 176 hectares (434 acres) by 2000.
Cattle production is widespread throughout the United States. Texas leads in the production of range cattle, which are allowed to graze freely. Iowa and Illinois are important for nonrange feeder cattle, which are cattle that eat feed grain provided by cattle farmers. The Dairy Belt continues to be concentrated in southern Wisconsin but is also prominent in the rural landscapes of most northeastern states and fairly common in other states, too. Hog production tends to be concentrated in Iowa, Illinois, and surrounding states, where hogs are fattened for market. Chicken production is widespread, but southern states, including Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama, dominate.
Corn and soybean production is concentrated heavily in Iowa and Illinois and is also important in surrounding states, including Missouri, Indiana, Nebraska, and the southern regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Wheat is another important U.S. crop. Kansas usually leads all states in yearly wheat production. North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, and Nebraska also are major wheat producers.
For more than a century and a half, cotton was the predominant cash crop in the South. Today, however, it is no longer important in some of the traditional cotton-growing areas east of the Mississippi River. While some cotton is still produced in the Old South, it has become more important in the Mississippi Valley, the Panhandle of Texas, and the Central Valley of California. Cotton is shipped to mills in the eastern United States and is exported to cotton textile plants in Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan.
Vegetables are grown widely in the United States. Outside major U.S. cities, small farms and gardens, known as truck farms, grow vegetables and some varieties of fruits for urban markets. California is the leading vegetable producing state; much of its cropland is irrigated.
Most fruits grown in the United States fall in the categories of midlatitude and citrus fruits. Midlatitude fruits, such as apples, pears, and plums, grow in northern states including Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. Citrus fruits—lemons, oranges, and grapefruits—thrive in Florida, southern Texas, and southern California. Nuts grow on irrigated land in the Central Valley of California and in parts of southern California.
Production of specialty crops and livestock has increased in recent years, particularly along the East and West coasts and in the Southeast. Ranches in New York and Texas have introduced exotic game, such as emu, fallow deer, and nilgai and black buck antelope. Deer and antelope meat, known as venison, is served mainly in restaurants. Specialty vegetable and fruit operations produce dwarf apples, brown and green cotton, canola, and jasmine rice. Farmers raise more than 60 specialty crops in the United States for Asian-American markets, including bean sprouts, snow peas, and Chinese cabbage.
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