7 Fresh Facts About the Farms That Grow Your Food
If you live in a city or the suburbs, it can be easy to forget that agriculture is a big part of America’s economy and landscape. That landscape has changed radically over the past 100 years—even if the farmers haven’t. Here are seven things you might not know about U.S. farms.
1. THEY TAKE UP A LOT OF SPACE.
At nearly 3.8 million square miles, America is huge—and so is American agriculture. As of 2012, farmland occupied more than 40 percent of U.S. soil [PDF]. Most of that land is concentrated in the Midwest, but there are big pockets in California and the Southeast.
2. A LOT OF THAT SPACE IS DEDICATED TO JUST THREE CROPS.
Have you ever wondered why wheat, corn syrup, and soy are in practically every processed food these days? In an effort to keep American farms afloat during the Great Depression, the government began subsidizing certain crops—most notably wheat [PDF], corn [PDF], and soybeans [PDF]. Today, those crops are big business, bringing in more than $100 billion each year and accounting for 31 percent of total agricultural profit.
3. SMALL FARMS ARE A BIG DEAL.
Speaking last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, USDA senior scientist Catherine Woteki noted that family farms make up an astonishing 99 percent of American farms. But as you’d expect, most of those are small farms, which means that nearly all of our country’s farms are squished into only 46 percent of our farmland.
4. MOST FARMERS REALLY ARE OLD MEN.
When you imagine a farmer, what do you see? If you’re picturing an older white man, you’re mostly correct. In 2012 (the last agricultural census), only 14 percent [PDF] of American farm operators were women, 3 percent [PDF] were Hispanic, 1.4 percent [PDF] were black, 1.7 percent were Native American [PDF], and less than 1 percent were Asian [PDF]. The average age is 57, and Woteki said a full third of farmers are over the age of 65.
5. WE NEED BEES AND OTHER BUGS.
Plants won’t produce crops without pollination, and we rely on bugs to do a lot of that work for us. Bees alone pollinate more than 75 percent [PDF] of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S., but they’re not alone: A recent study found that flies, beetles, butterflies, and wasps are doing plenty of pollinating themselves.
6. MANY OF CHINA’S AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS WERE MADE IN AMERICA.
Agricultural exports have always been a big source of revenue for the U.S. In 2014 alone, America sold $24.6 billion worth of agricultural products to China—mostly wheat, soybeans, and corn [PDF]. This is the reverse of most other products—think about how many things you buy that were made in China.
7. FARMERS MARKETS ARE A REGIONAL THING.
Readers on either U.S. coast may be surprised to learn that farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) aren’t happening everywhere. In 2012, only 6.9 percent [PDF] of American farms sold their wares directly to consumers, and most of those were concentrated in California and the Northeast. In fact, three states—California, New York, and Pennsylvania—accounted for nearly a third of all direct-to-consumer farm sales.