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Economic Overview

U.S. agriculture is a complex system that simultaneously produces unprecedented bounty and unparalleled social concerns. Can the unique institution of the American family farm survive the economic realities of the 21st century? Can the United States continue to have the most abundant and the safest food system in the world? These questions and the unfolding answers will have impacts that will be felt for generations to come. What we know for certain is that:

Agricultural production in the United States is a business that requires very high capital investments in land, facilities, and machines and most often produces undifferentiated products (commodities) of generally low unit value.  Thin profit margins have forced producers to seek efficiencies in all aspects of production.  There are efficiencies of scale that favor large producers who can make the most effective use of large, expensive machines.  In crops such as corn and soybeans, and in poultry and animal production commercially viability is usually based on producing "in volume."


Gross farm income includes cash receipts from the sale of farm products, government payments ‎arising from farm program participation, the value of fuel, feed, fertilizer, see and other inputs ‎consumed on the farm, and the rental value of farmland and dwellings. Farmers often are able to ‎enhance their income by using futures and/or production contracts to achieve a higher selling ‎price than would be available if a crop was sold at the time it was harvested. Often, production ‎contracts require the seller (the farmer) to achieve certain levels of quality and/or quantity in order ‎to qualify for a premium selling price. Many farms participate in U.S. government farm programs in ‎which income support payments are made to farmers who raise program commodity crops and ‎participate in applicable conservation plans to reduce soil erosion and adhere to wetland protection ‎requirements currently in law. ‎

The following table provides an estimate of the per-acre value of major crops grown in the United ‎States in the year 2012. Crop yields vary widely across the country and overall production has an ‎impact on market prices.‎

Table 1. Typical value of major agricultural crops grown in the United States in 2012.

Crop Typical Yield
(-/ acre)
Typical Farm Price
Crop Value
‎866 lb.‎
‎7,449 lb.‎
Corn (grain)
‎123.4 bu.‎
‎39.6 bu.‎
Sorghum (grain)
‎2,788.8 lb.‎
‎46.3 bu.‎

Agricultural commodity prices have not kept pace with rising prices in other segments of the ‎economy, which has decimated the number of small farms. Even though the per-acre value of ‎most major crops is low, the volume and value of crop production in the United States is ‎staggering. The 2007 Census of Agriculture found that U.S. farms sold $297 billion in agricultural ‎products. This was a 48 percent change from 2002 where the U.S. farm receipts totaled $201 ‎billion (*4). Of the 2007 total, approximately 3% ($8 billion) comes to the farm in the form of ‎government payments. The U.S. exports about ¼ of the total U.S. farm receipts, (*5) helping to ‎offset trade deficits in other sectors of the economy. Of the total crop production in the U.S., ‎about 30 percent is exported. ‎

The agribusiness sector, which provides production agriculture with necessary inputs and which ‎adds value to farm products, continues to thrive. The economic impact of agribusiness is huge. In ‎‎2010, agriculture and related industries had about 5% percent value-added share of nominal GDP (*6) ‎‎($9.95 trillion in 2010) and employs just over one-sixth of the U.S. civilian labor force (2.63 million ‎workers; 2007 Agricultural Census)(*3).


(1) US. USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Crop Values 2012 Summary. N.p., 15 Feb. 2013. ‎Web. <http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/current/CropValuSu/CropValuSu-02-15-2013.pdf>.‎
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(2) U.S. USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2007 Census of Agriculture: Economics. N.p., 3 ‎Feb. 2009. Web. ‎‎<http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/Economics/economics.pdf>.‎Exit EPA

‎(3) U.S. USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2007 Census of Agriculture. N.p., 15 Mar. ‎‎2011. Web. ‎‎<http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/Economics/farm_labor.pdf>Exit EPA

(4) U.S. U.S. Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012; Section 17: Agriculture. N.p., ‎‎27 Sept. 2011. Web. <http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/12statab/agricult.pdf>.‎Exit EPA

‎(5) U.S. USDA. Foreign Agricultural Service. Frequently Asked Questions About Agricultural Trade. ‎N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.fas.usda.gov/itp/Policy/tradeFAQ.asp>.‎Exit EPA

‎(6) U.S. USDA. Economic Research Service. FAQs. N.p., n.d. Web. ‎‎<http://www.ers.usda.gov/faqs.aspx#.UVxs2pMX-5R>.‎Exit EPA

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Production Expenses

The major agricultural commodities produced in the U.S. have a relatively low per-acre value. In ‎the past, crop prices often failed to keep pace with inflation. For example, the average price paid to ‎farmers for soybeans in 2000 was $4.40 per bushel, the lowest average price since 1972, and a 40 ‎percent decline since 1996. Over the past couple of years, this has been changing. For instance, in ‎‎2012 the cost of soybeans increased to $14.30 per bushel. ‎

USDA tracks both prices received for farm products and prices paid for production inputs. Using ‎the 1910-1914 period as a base, the prices received by today's farmer have increased by at least a ‎factor of six. However, prices paid by farmers for production inputs have increased by at least a ‎factor of sixteen! For statistics on crop totals (prices), visit USDA's National Agriculture Statistics ‎Service here: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_Subject/index.php?sector=CROPS. ‎Exit EPA

Thin profit margins have forced producers to seek efficiencies in all aspects of production. ‎Efficiencies of scale favor large producers who can make the most effective use of large, ‎expensive machines. For crops such as corn and soybeans, commercial viability is based on ‎producing "in volume." These forces have dramatically changed the size and numbers of farms.‎

In addition to efficiencies in machinery and crop production volume, crop inflation costs and crop ‎production expenses are linked to various other factors including gas prices, weather conditions, ‎environmental events, and consumer demand related to crops.‎


1. U.S. USDA. Economic Research Service. Food Price Outlook: Summary Findings. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-price-outlook/summary-findings.aspx>. Exit EPA

2. "World Food Prices Rise to Near-Record High as Inflation Speeds Up, UN Says." Bloomberg. N.p., 5 May 2011. Web. 09 Apr. 2013. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-05/food-prices-approach-record-high-as-grain-prices-fuel-inflation-worldwide.html>.Exit EPA

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Expense Categories

Combine Unloading to a Grain Cart

Harvest scene in the Corn Belt - a large combine quickly unloads grain to a high-capacity grain cart
Source: Daniel R. Ess, Purdue University

Land:  The average price of an acre of U.S. farmland is over $1,000. Prime farmland in the Corn Belt can sell for over $3,000 per acre (2000). In the Midwest, cash rental prices for land range from $10 per acre per year for pasture to over $100 for highly productive cropland.

Machinery:  The variety of machines for producing crops is as great as the variety of crops produced. However, there are certain "staple" technologies such as tractors and combines that serve to illustrate the magnitude of investment that modern farmers must make in machinery.

It is often puzzling to non-farmers to see expensive equipment stored in sheds and/or sitting idle for months at a time. Why would a farmer invest $300,000 in a large combine only to use it for four weeks out of the year? How could a farmer possibly justify spending upwards of $200,000 for a tractor that is used for little else but tillage? The simple, but important, answer is TIMELINESS. Crops are biological “products” that produce optimum yields only when planting and harvest operations can be performed within relatively small windows of time. For instance, the optimum harvest window for corn in Eastern Illinois is only 30 days long and for wheat in Kansas the harvest window is only 10 to 14 days. This requires the use of large equipment that is used very intensively for relatively short periods of time.

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Production Inputs

The per-unit costs of agricultural production inputs such as feed, fertilizers, crop chemicals, and ‎seed also vary widely due to production systems. For instance, a corn farmer might have nitrogen ‎fertilizer costs of $50 per acre while a soybean farmer down the road might have no nitrogen ‎fertilizer costs due to a legume's ability to fix nitrogen. Crop chemicals such as herbicides, ‎insecticides, and fungicides are applied on an "as-needed" basis and applications vary widely from ‎farm-to-farm, and from crop-to-crop. Seed costs tend to vary based on conventional or biotech ‎varieties. For instance, farmers may pay an average of $200 per bag of seed corn for a non-GMO ‎seed and around $300 per bag of GMO seed. (*1) While seed costs vary by the type of seed, per-unit ‎costs vary somewhat less across types of crops. For instance, a more expensive bag of seed corn ‎would plant about 2½ acres, while a less expensive bag of soybeans would plant about an acre.‎

In addition to land, machinery, fertilizer, crop chemicals, and seed, farmers face costs for ‎buildings, grain handling facilities, hired labor, fuel for vehicles, heating, and conditioning crops, ‎livestock, feed and veterinary care for the livestock, taxes, crop insurance, property insurance, and ‎the list goes on. All of the expenses add to the challenge of remaining profitable and economically ‎viable for the long term. ‎


1. "Purdue Agriculture News." Ag Economist: Seed Prices Going Up, but so Will Revenues. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2012/Q4/ag-economist-seed-prices-going-up,-but-so-will-revenues.html>Exit EPA

2. US. USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Farm Production Expenditures ‎‎2011 Summary. N.p., 8. Aug. 2012. Web. ‎‎<http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/current/FarmProdEx/FarmProdEx-08-02-2012.pdf>.‎Exit EPA

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Social and Economic Interactions and the Structure of U.S. Agriculture

Number of Hog Operations, USA

"Consolidation" and "concentration" are perhaps the most apt words to characterize the structural change in American agricultural production over the past two decades. The number of farms with hogs in the United States declined from almost 700,000 in 1980 to approximately 70,000 in 2000. At the same time, the percentage of hogs produced by the largest sized farms (greater than 5,000 head inventory) rose from 20 percent of total U.S. production in 1992 to approximately 50 percent in 2000. Similar statistics also exist for poultry and crop production in the U.S.

Percent of USA Hogs by Farm Size

This shift toward larger production units and the substitution of chemical and mechanical inputs for labor have raised a variety of social and economic issues. For example, there are questions concerning the environmental sustainability of modern agricultural production systems. More recently, low product prices, larger government payments to farmers, and increased use of alternative business arrangements such as contracting have also brought into question the economic and social sustainability of the current agricultural industry structure.

State governments have traditionally promulgated and enforced environmental policies with respect to farm level production. However, varying political forces across state lines have led to different degrees of regulation and enforcement. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that such differences are responsible for shifts in livestock production to non-traditional areas (and less regulated) with less stringent regulation and often where there is little or no crop base to utilize the manure nutrients. Such shifts in economic activity may have social and environmental consequences that are not always in society's best interest.

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Economics Study Questions

Identify the definition that best fits the following terms:

  1. Food is most affordable in this country:
    United States

  2. U.S. farm receipts exceed $200 billion per year. The following percentage is exported, on the average:
    5 %
    10 %

  3. Farms and agriculture-related business account for the following portion of the U.S. gross domestic product:
    1/50 (2%)
    1/20 (5%)
    1/4 (25%)
    1/2 (50%)

  4. Farms and agribusinesses employ the following portion of the U.S. civilian work force:
    1/9 (11%)
    1/6 (13%)
    1/4 (25%)
    1/2 (50%)

  5. About this much of the United State's land area is used for crop production:

  6. The primary reason that many crop farmers pay several hundred thousand dollars for large harvesting equipment is:
    To impress the bankers
    To impress their neighbors
    End of year equipment sales
    The very short time period when they are able to harvest crops

  7. Farmers in the Midwest typically have this yield (in bushels) per acre for corn (2012 data):
    155.6 bu.
    331.3 bu.
    403 bu.

  8. The number of swine farms dropped by this amount over the last twenty years:
    10 % (500,000 => 450,000)
    25 % (400,000 => 300,000)
    60 % (1,000,000 =>400,000)
    90 % (700,000 => 70,000)

Score in Percentage:

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