USDA’s Economic Research Service: A Trusted Source for Farm Bill Research and Analysis

Approximately every five years, Congress passes a new Farm Bill, providing a framework for agriculture and food policy for the next half-decade. ERS has long been an authoritative source for information and analysis of the provisions of each new Farm Bill. The core research and data program of the Economic Research Service covers the breadth of USDA programs affected by the 2018 Farm Act: farming, nutrition, conservation, trade, rural development, research, and energy.

When the Agriculture Improvement Act passed at the end of 2018, ERS posted this series of web pages, The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications, beginning just one day after the law’s passage on Dec. 20, 2018. ERS experts worked closely with experts throughout USDA agencies to provide this comprehensive resource, including 15 topic pages that explore and illuminate the major provisions of the legislation, such as nutrition assistance, crop insurance, commodity support, and conservation. 

While these pages serve as a resource for anyone looking to gain insight into the Farm Bill, they are just one example of how ERS research supports the legislation. ERS shapes its research program and products to inform the decisions of policy makers, including USDA officials, the White House, and Congress. Each year, ERS’s research program contains timely and policy-relevant titles that inform key issues. Just one example is a Dec. 2019 Amber Waves article titled “2018 Farm Act Retains Conservation Programs But Could Reduce Payments for Land Retirement.” In 2019, ERS also produced informative reports on how climate change could affect the cost of the Federal Crop Insurance Program, soybean trade with China, and the impact of  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program spending on Gross Domestic Product.

In recognition of ERS’s central role in providing trusted economic research on USDA programs and current issues affecting food and agriculture policy, Congress requested several reports from ERS in the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act and Consolidated Appropriations Act. They include research and analysis on the economic viability of industrial hemp, developing automation and mechanization for specialty crops, dairy farm size and location, access to land for limited resource farmers, and drivers of food loss at the farm and pre-retail sectors. In addition, ERS economists contributed to reports from the USDA Office of the Chief Economist on the effects of absent landlords on the long-term health of agriculture production and food loss and waste reduction in the retail and consumer sectors.

USDA transmitted these reports to Congress in late 2019 and early 2020. This timely research and analysis includes the following publicly available findings, with more still to be released:

  • After a hiatus of almost 45 years, the 2014 Farm Bill reintroduced industrial hemp production in the United States through State pilot programs. Under these pilot programs, United States industrial hemp acreage reported by States increased from zero in 2013 to over 90,000 acres in 2018, the largest U.S. hemp acreage since the 146,200 acres planted in 1943. Economic Viability of Industrial Hemp in the United States: A Review of State Pilot Programs documented outcomes and lessons learned from the State pilot programs and examined legal, agronomic, and economic challenges that may impact the transition from the pilot programs to economically viable commercial production. 
  • At $64.7 billion, specialty crops comprised one-third of U.S. crop receipts in 2017. Relative to other crops, many specialty crops depend more on agricultural labor for production, harvesting, and processing. Developing Automation and Mechanization for Specialty Crops: A Review of U.S. Department of Agriculture Programs described six U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that accelerate the development and use of automation or mechanization in the production or processing of specialty crops. 
  • The balancing of expected costs, revenues, and risks from the sale of produce by growers and distributors plays a substantial role in what is often described as “loss” at the pre-retail level in the produce supply chain. Economic Drivers of Food Loss at the Farm and Pre-Retail Sectors: A Look at the Produce Supply Chain in the United States provided an overview of the drivers of food loss on the farm and other pre-retail sectors, with a focus on economic incentives that underlie the way fresh foods are grown, processed, and marketed in the United States. The study focuses on the produce sector because fruits and vegetables are highly perishable and important to diet quality.

As ERS looks beyond 2020, it will continue to produce timely and policy-relevant research to not only inform and enhance decision-making by policymakers but also contribute to public awareness and understanding of these key USDA programs, so that everyone from farmers to grocery shoppers can continue to make informed decisions on the crops they grow and the food they eat. The following sections highlight the diverse farm and food research that ERS published during FY 2019.