Agriculture in the United States and the Role It Plays in the Country
Agriculture or farming is a major part of the lives of people and animals around the world everyday. From the clothes we put on when we get up in the morning, to the food we eat and drink throughout our day, to the bed we sleep in at night, agriculture and its products impact everyone in lots of ways. Some might argue that the growing and harvesting of plants and animals is critical to human survival.
When someone says the word “Agriculture,” most people think of strapping on their lace-up boots and putting on their straw hat and heading out to the fields and planting corn or going to the barn to milk the cows. However, there is so much more to agriculture than that. Agriculture includes the grazing of livestock and the growing of plants both for food (human and animal) and for fuel. Livestock and food grown in the United States have many bi-products. These bi-products such as, leather from cows hide, or soap made from goat’s milk, make up a huge economically dependent environment. To say agriculture is important is an understatement, it is the basis in which people live in America, both past and present day.
To begin to understand the importance, we must begin with discussing the history of agriculture in the United States. The history covers the period from the first English settlers to the present day. In Colonial America, agriculture was the primary income for most of the population, and most towns were shipping points for the export of agricultural products. Most farms were geared toward only producing what their family would use. When the settlers started to move westward, this new frontier created a growth in population. Therefore, a large number of new farms opened up, and land clearing became the biggest goal for the farmers. After 1800, cotton became the chief crop in southern plantations, and the chief American export. After 1840, industrialization and urbanization opened up lots of profitable economic markets around the world.
Today, agriculture is a major industry in the United States, with its main export being food. As of the 2007 census of agriculture, there were 2.2 million farms, covering an area of 922 million acres, with each farm being an average of 418 acres. Although agriculture of some type occurs in every state in the union, it is particularly concentrated on the Great Plains. The Great Plains is a vast area of flat, arable land in the center of the nation in the region west of the Great Lakes and east of the Rocky Mountains. The eastern, wetter half is a major corn and soybean producing region known as the Corn Belt, while the western, drier half is known as the Wheat Belt for its high rate of wheat farming. The Central Valley of California, produces fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and is known as the Salad Bowl. The American South has historically been a large producer of cotton, tobacco, and rice, but it’s production has declined over the past century.
America in the early 1900’s had to find ways to support the growth of population. During the 1900’s, the american farmers’ average production increased from feeding a regular family of about five to that same family plus a hundred other people. Farming grew with a combination of efforts made from the advances in fertilizer, pesticides, genetic modification (GMO), and changes in methods of cultivation.
At first, natural fertilizer materials such as manure, wood ash, ground bones, and bat waste were used to replenish the nutrients in the soil. Although natural fertilizers increased production more needed to be done to increase production of the crops. Scientists in the 1800s, discovered that elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium were essential to the growth of crops. Fertilizer containing these elements were made in the United States and Europe. Then in the 1900s, the use of commercial fertilizer really boosted production. Combinations of N, P, and K were formulated and designed and were tailored with each crop in mind.
Another issue that came up was pests. An infestation of pests could set in and kill an entire crop. Armyworms in corn, Weevils in cotton, and Beatles in tobacco are just a few of the pests that needed to be controlled in order for farmers to sustain the demand for production. Soon farmers learned pesticides could control pests that destroyed their crops.
The addition of fertilizer and pesticides brought on another set of problems for the farmers. Often times using too much caused a build up of these chemicals and in some cases destroyed helpful species of insects and animals along with the harmful ones. This brought on discussions of control and moderation of the fertilizer and pesticides. The Department of Agriculture later imposed regulations and recommendations for application of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.
During the 1950s and 1960s, new types of plants and animals were developed through random experimentation by scientists. This experimentation became known as genetic modification, or GMO. As knowledge about GMOs grew people began to select the characteristics they wanted to produce. This new technology was used in selective breeding for both plants and animals. Scientists in the 1970s even began to rearrange genes and add new ones to promote disease resistance, productivity, and other desired characteristics of food in either plants or animals. This led to higher yields for wheat, rice, and corn. Grain production soared as a result. The high production crops placed stress on native plants and animals.
Some other impacts of agriculture have been changes in the methods of cultivation and machinery. The need to clear land for agriculture pushed a need for tractors and other heavy machinery to make the land plowable for crop production. One method of improvement was fallow land rotation. This method of cultivation is used primarily by wheat growers in the Wheat Belt. Compared to fertilizing every year, this way reduces expense and allows land to rest every other year. Another method of improvement was sod planting. Sod planting was introduced to slow down erosion and help retain more nutrients in the soil. Sod planting, or no till planting, requires a sod drill to place seeds in the soil. Sod planting is the largest method of planting used in the United States today. Improvements in machinery was another factor in farming through the years. Machinery size and improved technology allow for more acres to be tilled at faster speeds which reduce labor costs. The addition of GPS trackers helped to make sure each row is the same width, making each acre more efficient.
Advances in agricultural technology in the United States provides more production of food, faster delivery, and breakthroughs for the next generation of farmers, but it also generates controversy and debate. For example, recently the media has popularized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent proposal to Congress called “The Green New Deal”. It states that “eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural industries” and “investing in local-scale agriculture” must be part of the plan to help lower dangerous gases that impact climate change. The proposal studies state, that we cannot avoid climate chaos if we don’t support a rapid transition from large-scale, chemical-intensive food production toward healthier, less meat-centric, diversified, organic, and ecologically regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture means farming in a way that puts carbon from the air into the soil and helps purify the groundwater we use. This transition also requires resilient, fair, local, and regional food systems that ensure good jobs and healthy food for all.
The Green New Deal goes on to discuss the fact that the same industrial food system that is generating so much climate harm is also producing poverty, hunger, and a public health crisis. Farm workers who harvest and make our food often earn the lowest wages and live in poverty. They also face serious health issues due to being on the frontlines of exposure to toxic agrochemicals that have been linked to cancer, infertility, and numerous other health concerns.
While our highly polluting, fossil fuel-intensive industrial food system is a major part of the problem, it is also thought that food and farming can also be a big part of the solution. Some climate change solutions are in the food and agriculture sector. They include food waste reduction, plant-rich diets, regenerative agriculture, and managed grazing.
Compared with industrial agriculture, organic and regenerative farming systems are less energy-intensive and put more carbon back into the soil. Research shows that organic and regenerative practices, like cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, and managed livestock grazing can foster biodiversity, make soil more fertile, and aid in water conservation. These practices also contribute to higher production yields and make diversified organic farming systems more resilient in the face of climate-related weather impacts like drought and floods.
At the center of all of the moving parts in the agricultural industry is the USDA or United States Department of Agriculture. On May 15th, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to establish the United States Department of Agriculture and two and a half years later in his final message to Congress, Lincoln called USDA ‘The People’s Department.’ The United States Department of Agriculture is a branch of the government that helps regulate farmers and provide instruction on agriculture, food, nutrition, natural resources, and related issues based on public policy, the most modern available science, and effective management.
In the United States, it is important for agriculture to be successful because it supports overall economic growth. By producing a wide variety of foods inexpensively, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy products, America’s farmers and ranchers ensure a safe and reliable food supply. Agriculture also improves U.S. energy security and reduces dependence on foreign oil through the production of biofuels and the development of other alternative sources of energy. These new sources of energy can help reduce costs for businesses and consumers. For example, some studies have found that an increased supply of biofuels reduces gas prices. A healthy farm economy is especially important to small towns and rural areas. Farmers and ranchers invest in their operations, supporting jobs in farm machinery manufacturing and other industries, and they purchase goods and services from local businesses. High levels of farm production, in turn, improves other connecting businesses such as food processing companies and biofuel refineries.
Agriculture in the United States has evolved in many ways and has a rich history. That history includes production, technology, and environmental challenges. We must not ignore the past agriculture advances and learn from them. We must not ignore the future obstacles that the Agriculture industry faces for future generations. Most importantly we must not criticize a farmer with our mouth full.
The advances of agriculture in the United States over the last 120 years have ensured that the world’s population is fed. With the population of the world continuing to rise we must continue to advance our technology around fertilizer, GMO’s, and cultivation. With these advances comes harsh criticisms, such as climate change. Some people argue that farming harms the environment by the burning of fossil fuels and the emissions produced from Tractors, Trucks, and even the biomass from livestock. However, I think that
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