ERS Charts of Note
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Monday, October 2, 2023
Two companies—Corteva and Bayer—provided more than half the U.S. retail seed sales of corn, soybeans, and cotton in 2018–20, the most recent period for which estimates are available. In recent decades, the U.S. crop seed industry has become more concentrated, with fewer and larger firms dominating seed supply. Today, four firms (Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina’s Syngenta Group, and BASF) control the majority of crop seed and agricultural chemical sales. In 2015, six firms led global markets for seeds and agricultural chemicals. The concentration can be traced to the expansion of intellectual property rights to private companies for seed improvements in the 1970s and 1980s, creating an incentive to research and develop new biotechnology seed traits and seed varieties. As biotechnology advanced, companies created genetically modified (GM) varieties of seed, such as herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant corn, soybeans, and cotton. Mergers occurred between companies that produced and sold pesticides (primarily herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides), seed treatments (seed coatings to protect against insects or fungi), crop seeds, and seed traits. As a result, the U.S. crop seed sector has become highly integrated with agricultural chemicals and more concentrated. This chart is drawn from data in the USDA, ERS publication Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness, published in June 2023, and the Amber Waves article Expanded Intellectual Property Protections for Crop Seeds Increase Innovation and Market Power for Companies, published in August 2023.
Wednesday, September 27, 2023
U.S. irrigated agriculture has seen regional changes in the past two decades, influenced by a variety of factors. From 1997 to 2017, total U.S. irrigated agricultural acreage increased by 1.7 million acres. Irrigated acreage grew primarily in the eastern United States, where agriculture production is historically rain-fed, and declined in the West, where a generally arid climate necessitates irrigation for most crops. In the East, increased frequency and severity of drought have driven farmers to move from rain-fed to irrigated production. In the West, farmers have begun to take irrigated land out of production as surface water supplies dry up, and they face increasing competition for water from growing urban centers. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report Trends in U.S. Irrigated Agriculture: Increasing Resilience Under Water Supply Scarcity, published in December 2021.
Monday, September 25, 2023
Before 1970, most crop breeding was done in the public sector. Seed companies lacked incentives to invest in crop breeding because they had no legal mechanism to restrict unlicensed use of improved seed, except for hybrid seed, which could be protected through trade secrets. The 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act aimed to encourage seed companies to improve crop varieties beyond hybrid seed. That aim was cemented after several court rulings ensured the private sector could benefit from its research into new seed varieties and genetically modified traits. In the following years, the number of intellectual property rights, such as Plant Variety Protection certificates, plant patents, and utility patents, began to rise. Genetically modified varieties of corn, soybeans, and cotton were introduced in the United States in 1996 and became the dominant seed choice among farmers within a few years. From 2016 to 2020, a total of 5,137 plant patents, 5,010 utility patents, and 2,028 Plant Variety Protection certificates were issued for new crop varieties, more than double the rate of a decade earlier. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service publication Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness and the Amber Waves article Expanded Intellectual Property Protections for Crop Seeds Increase Innovation and Market Power for Companies.
Monday, September 18, 2023
Total research and development (R&D) spending on crop improvement by the seven largest seed companies (as well as their legacy companies) increased from less than $2 billion in 1990 to more than $6.5 billion by 2021, closely tracking with increases in company revenues from seed and agrichemical sales. Intellectual property rights protections for new seed innovations—especially genetically modified seeds—allow seed companies to set prices for their products with a temporary legal monopoly. The profits earned are a return for R&D investments and costs to commercialize the inventions. These profits also allowed seed companies to spend more on crop R&D, accelerate the rate of new variety introductions with higher productivity potential, and charge higher prices reflecting the value of improved seeds. Collectively, these 7 companies have invested about 10 percent of their agricultural revenues in R&D. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service publication Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness, published in June 2023, and the Amber Waves article Expanded Intellectual Property Protections for Crop Seeds Increase Innovation and Market Power for Companies, published in August 2023.
Tuesday, September 5, 2023
Water is withdrawn from surface and groundwater sources for agricultural, industrial and municipal use. Farmers in the United States source water for irrigation by diverting it from on-farm surface water bodies like rivers or streams, directly pumping groundwater, or receiving water via the canals and ditches of water delivery irrigation organizations. In the four regions of the western United States (consisting of the Northwest (Idaho, Oregon, and Washington), Pacific (California and Nevada), Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah), and Eastern Rockies (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming) regions) irrigation water delivery organizations accounted for almost 60 percent of the water that is withdrawn for all uses in an average year. In contrast, in the High Plains (Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) and Southeast (Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), where surface and ground water resources for irrigation are available without large-scale coordination, these organizations conveyed water that amounted to about 3 percent of all water withdrawn in an average year. Irrigation water delivery organizations play a particularly large role in the Southwest, where in 2019 they conveyed 11 million acre-feet of water, which is 73 percent of the 15 million acre-feet withdrawn for all uses in an average year. This chart appears in the ERS report Irrigation Organizations: Water Inflows and Outflows, published in August 2023.
Thursday, August 24, 2023
Use of aerial imagery provided by aircraft, drones, and satellites remains limited on U.S. farms. USDA has tracked adoption of many agricultural production technologies through its annual Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) of U.S. farms. Farmers using drones and aircraft can survey large stretches of farm and ranch land. Aerial imagery helps identify land features or vegetation patterns that are more easily visible from above and thus aids in crop mapping, livestock monitoring, land surveying, crop spraying, and crop dusting. According to the most recent data for various row crops, aerial imagery was used on 7.0 percent of acres planted to corn in 2016 and 9.8 percent for soybeans in 2018. The adoption rate on winter wheat-planted acreage in 2017 was 3.5 percent, with comparable adoption in 2019 on cotton acres (2.8 percent) and sorghum (4.6 percent). For context, in 2016, these adoption rates were lower than those of related technologies like yield maps (43.7 percent) and soil maps (21.5 percent), which provide visualizations of how yields and soil properties vary within and across fields. The ongoing digitalization of U.S. agriculture presents considerable opportunities for improvement in farmers’ productivity, environmental footprint, and risk management. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms, published in February 2023.
Monday, August 21, 2023
Irrigation water delivery organizations play a key role in delivering water to farms, ranches, and nonagricultural users in the United States. Results from the 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations (SIO) show that 2,477 organizations in western regions were directly involved in delivering water to farms. About 70 percent of the water withdrawn from freshwater sources for irrigation in the western regions of the United States is managed by irrigation water delivery organizations. In most regions, organizations that allow transfers internally between their users were more common than organizations engaging in external trades with other entities. Some of these organizations trade water by leasing it to or from other irrigation organizations, municipalities, environmental groups, or other interested parties. In the Pacific region, 17 percent of organizations engage in these external leases, compared to between 3 and 7 percent in other regions in the western United States. Water exchanges may also occur internally between water users within a delivery organization’s own water delivery system, if allowed by the organization. Internal transfers between users in an organization occurred in 5 percent of organizations in the Pacific and between 8 and 11 percent of organizations in other regions of the western United States. This chart appears in the USDA Economic Research Service publication Irrigation Organizations: Water Inflows and Outflows, published in August 2023.
Tuesday, August 15, 2023
Farmers use variable rate technologies (VRT) to control the amount of farm inputs—such as seed, fertilizer, and chemicals—applied as farm machinery moves across a field. With more precise control of inputs, farmers can make more efficient applications that might lower production costs or reduce environmental impacts. Data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) show that initial adoption of VRT in the late 1990s and early 2000s was sluggish, remaining below 10 percent of planted acres for several field crops. However, adoption rates for corn and cotton have increased markedly over the last decade. The VRT adoption rate for corn stood at 37.4 percent of planted acres in 2016, up from 11.5 percent in 2005. Cotton acreage using VRT showed a similar increase, rising from 5.4 percent in 2007 to 22.7 percent in 2019. Recent VRT adoption rates across other crops included 13.9 percent for sorghum in 2019, 18.8 percent of winter wheat planted acres in 2017, and 25.3 percent of soybean-planted acres in 2018. VRT adoption follows a pattern common to other precision technologies: higher adoption by large farms and lower adoption among smaller farms, in part because larger farms can spread the fixed costs of adoption over greater production amounts. This chart and more information on the topic appear in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms, published in February 2023.
Thursday, August 10, 2023
Irrigation water delivery organizations are entities such as irrigation districts and ditch companies that supply farmers, ranchers, and other users with water. These organizations draw water from several different sources. Water from Federal water projects and direct diversions from surface water bodies make up the majority of inflows to these organizations. Yet there is substantial variation across organizations based on size. Large water delivery organizations, (which supply water to more than 10,000 acres) tend to contract water from Federal water storage facilities rather than draw from natural surface sources such as rivers. However, small water delivery organizations (supporting less than 1,000 acres) draw a much higher proportion of their water inflows from surface sources. These differences reflect the historical development of irrigation organizations, with larger organizations developing in tandem with or as part of top-down approaches to provide water for irrigation, while small organizations developed from the ground up as small private ventures or community-led efforts. This chart appears in the USDA Economic Research Service publication Irrigation Organizations: Water Inflows and Outflows, published in August 2023.
Monday, August 7, 2023
Genetically modified (GM) varieties of corn, soybeans, and cotton were introduced in the United States in 1996, and they became the dominant seed choice among farmers within a few years. Later, GM varieties were widely adopted for canola and sugar beets. By 2020 (the most recent year for which data are available), about 55 percent of the total harvested cropland in the United States was grown with varieties having at least one GM trait. The most prevalent GM traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Private seed companies lead the development of GM traits—a shift away from public institutions—stimulated by judicial rulings that created protections for intellectual property in crop genetics and other biological inventions. Advances in biotechnology provided a new means of improving crops by allowing genes with specific, inheritable traits to be transferred to distant crop varieties. GM seed use also is catching on in alfalfa, potatoes, papaya, squash, and apples. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness, published in June 2023.
Tuesday, July 25, 2023
Corn farmers most frequently apply manure to the soil surface without incorporating it, rather than using other methods. Manure types vary based on water content, such as lagoon liquid, slurry liquid, and dry or semi-dry. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers found that irrespective of manure type, corn farmers used surface application most often, tending not to incorporate the manure with tillage afterward. With incorporation, manure is first spread on the soil surface and then mixed into the first few inches with a tillage implement, thus increasing its contact with the soil. Less than 30 percent of all surface-applied manure on corn fields is incorporated. Surface application without incorporating into the soil or applying manure through an irrigation system results in less nutrient retention and lower fertilizer value. Farmers gauge manure moisture content to determine which application method to use when addressing crop nutrient needs. On operations such as swine or dairy farms, it is common to use water to wash manure out of barns, creating lagoon and slurry liquid manure with a high water content. Liquid manure is usually applied to the land’s surface, but roughly 20 percent is injected into the soil using specialized equipment like a manure injector. Only a small portion of liquid manure stored in lagoons is sprayed through irrigation systems. Poultry and beef feedlot manures are typically dry or semisolid. Almost all dry or semisolid manures are surface applied. In 2020, more acres were planted to corn (90.8 million acres) in the United States than any other crop, and a larger percentage of corn acres (16.3 percent) received manure than any other crop. This chart appears in the ERS report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published in March 2023.
Monday, July 24, 2023
In 2020, manure was applied to about 8 percent of the 240.9 million acres planted to 7 major U.S. field crops. Most manure applied to U.S. cropland (78 percent) comes from animals raised on the same operation, while 14 percent is purchased and 8 percent is obtained at no cost from other animal operations. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) survey data show that crop farmers received compensation from animal producers for taking manure for less than 1 percent of the manure applied, noted as “Obtained with compensation” in the chart. For most crops, farmers use manure that either comes from their own farm or at no cost from other farms. However, cotton and peanut producers are the most likely to purchase manure, typically from poultry growers. Among all animal manure types, poultry litter has the highest nutrient content, making it less costly to transport. Manure markets tend to be highly localized. When manure is obtained by a crop producer at no cost from the animal producer, that can indicate an excess supply of manure in the local area. Animal producers who apply their operations’ manure to their own crops account for a high proportion of manure used on oats, corn, and barley crops, followed by soybean and wheat. This chart appears in the USDA, ERS report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published in March 2023.
Wednesday, July 19, 2023
As of July 2023, drought conditions have improved across much of the Western United States (consisting of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) compared not only with earlier in the year, but also with 2021 and 2022. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, on July 11, 2023, 3 percent of land in the Western States was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, with an additional 8 percent classified as severe. This is down from June 2023, when 18 percent of land in Western States was classified as in extreme or exceptional drought. Significant precipitation and snowpack accumulation over the 2022–2023 winter and spring has reduced the prevalence of drought in the area, notably in California. However, conditions remain dry in Kansas and Nebraska where severe or worse drought conditions affect 55 and 48 percent of land, respectively. Data reported by U.S. Drought Monitor show Western drought conditions intensified during summer 2021, then gradually subsided between October and December 2021. They intensified again during the first half of 2022 before starting to subside again. For agriculture, drought means diminished crop and livestock outputs and reduced profitability if adaptive measures such as irrigation are not used. Drought also reduces the quantity of snowpack and streamflow available for diversions to irrigated agricultural land. These impacts can reverberate throughout local, regional, and national economies. Find additional information on the USDA, Economic Research Service’s Newsroom page Drought in the Western United States.
Thursday, July 13, 2023
Large family farms were more likely to have stronger financial performance than other farms, according to USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers reporting data from the 2021 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). ERS researchers measured financial performance using operating profit margin (OPM), the ratio of operating profit to gross farm income. They categorized farms as low risk if they had an OPM larger than 25 percent. Large-scale family farms, defined as those with gross cash farm income (GCFI) of $1 million or more, were the most likely to have low-risk operating profit margins compared with nonfamily and family farms of other sizes. The share of large-scale family farms considered low risk was 54 percent in 2021, an increase from 48 percent in 2020. The large-scale category includes very large farms, with GCFI of $5 million or more. Large-scale family farms make up 3 percent of U.S. farms but contributed 46 percent of the value of production in 2021. Small family farms, those with GCFI less than $350,000, were less likely to have an operating profit margin over 25 percent. Small family farms represent 89 percent of U.S. farms and contributed 18 percent of the value of production. This chart appears in the ERS report America’s Farms and Ranches at a Glance, published in December 2022, and Examining Financial Risk Measures on Family and Nonfamily Farms, published in Amber Waves in June 2023.
Wednesday, July 12, 2023
Groundwater management organizations are local entities that influence on-farm groundwater use through statutory, regulatory, or other powers. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers studying irrigation identified two broad categories of groundwater organizations during a 2019 survey: those that influence only on-farm groundwater use (“groundwater only”) and organizations that both influence on-farm groundwater use and deliver surface water to farms (“groundwater and delivery”). More than 75 percent of “groundwater-only” organizations monitor groundwater conditions and collect pumping data. A smaller proportion of “groundwater and delivery organizations” monitor groundwater conditions or collect pumping data (approximately 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively). Charging pumping or water rights fees is a relatively common function among “groundwater and delivery organizations,” with 55 percent of these organizations charging fees compared with 40 percent of “groundwater only” organizations. Issuing permits for the development of new wells is also a common management function, particularly among “groundwater only” organizations. About 61 percent of “groundwater only” organizations engage in permitting, while 8 percent of “groundwater and delivery organizations” do. According to USDA data, about 65 percent of all irrigated U.S. acreage relied on groundwater as a primary or secondary source of water in 2018. This chart appears in the ERS report Irrigation Organizations: Groundwater Organizations, published in April 2023.
Monday, July 3, 2023
Between 2013 and 2019, the leading manure application method for farmers of major field crops was to apply manure to the surface without incorporating it—the simplest method in which manure is flailed or sprayed out of wagons and left on the ground. This method was used on 8.3 million acres, including about 6 million acres of corn. Surface application with incorporation was the next most common method, used on 5.5 million acres. With incorporation, manure is first spread on the soil surface and then mixed into the first few inches with a tillage implement, thus increasing its contact with the soil. The least common method was applying or injecting the manure directly in one operation, often with a chisel, disk, or knifing implement, used on 3.2 million acres. Injecting liquid manure below the soil surface or incorporating manure after surface application conserves more nutrients and increases the fertilizer value. Surface application without incorporation results in less nutrient retention. Manure is a valuable source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which can make it a substitute for, or complement to, commercial fertilizers. In 2020, farmers were estimated to have applied manure to about 7.7 percent of the 240.9 million acres planted to 7 major U.S. field crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, oats, peanuts, and barley). This chart appears in the ERS report, Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published in March 2023. See also the Amber Waves article Despite Challenges, Research Shows Opportunity to Increase Use of Manure as Fertilizer, published in April 2023.
Wednesday, June 28, 2023
Prices farmers paid for crop seed increased significantly faster than the prices farmers received for crop commodities between 1990 and 2020. During that period the average price farmers paid for all seed rose by 270 percent, while the crop commodity price index rose 56 percent. For crops planted predominantly with genetically modified (GM) seed (corn, soybeans, and cotton), seed prices rose by an average of 463 percent between 1990 and 2020. During this period, GM seed prices peaked in 2014 at 639 percent above 1990 price levels. Despite their higher cost, GM crop varieties have provided significant productivity gains for farmers, partly through higher yield, but also by lowering farm production costs. For example, GM traits for insect resistance reduce the need for insecticide applications. Similarly, GM traits for herbicide tolerance provide a substitute for mechanical tillage, thus reducing labor, machinery, and fuel previously used for controlling weeds. This chart appears in the USDA, ERS publication Concentration and Competition in U.S. Agribusiness, published in June 2023.
Monday, May 15, 2023
Thirty percent of groundwater organizations cite nitrate contamination as a groundwater quality concern. Nitrates can come from animal manure and chemical fertilizers that leach into groundwater. When groundwater pumping exceeds the volume of groundwater recharge, the concentration of contaminants like nitrates can increase. Nitrate contamination is a concern on more than half of the groundwater-fed irrigated acreage within groundwater organization service areas. USDA’s Survey of Irrigation Organizations collected information on the estimated 735 local entities that manage on-farm groundwater use through statutory, regulatory, or other powers. While nitrate contamination was the most common groundwater quality concern reported, contamination by salinity, other nutrients, and heavy metals are a concern for 27, 19, and 18 percent of groundwater organizations, respectively. Contaminated groundwater can harm crops or make the water unusable for irrigation entirely. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Irrigation Organizations—Groundwater Organizations published in April 2023.
Thursday, April 27, 2023
In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused major destruction across Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector. The destruction of infrastructure, operations, and crops led to an exodus of farmworkers, which further hampered the farm sector’s ability to recover. Data from the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Census of Agriculture, conducted every 5 years, show how the hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico’s farm income and expenses. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of farms declined by nearly 38 percent. Gross cash receipts—the sum of the sale of agricultural commodities, cash from farm-related income, and participation in Government farm programs—fell 19 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from $718 million to $585 million. Cash expenses for Puerto Rican farms also decreased, falling 16 percent from $594 million to $500 million. Puerto Rico Planning Board’s data for net agricultural farm income, which includes non-cash income and expenses such as inventory changes, show a similar decline over the span of time that includes years not captured by NASS census data. From 2012 to 2020, net agricultural farm income (not adjusted for inflation) fell by $101 million. This chart first appeared in the USDA, Economic Research Service report, Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Economy in the Aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria: A Brief Overview, April 2023.
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
The top two concerns raised by groundwater organizations related to groundwater depletion are degraded water quality and declining well capacity. Groundwater organizations are the local entities that influence on-farm groundwater use through statutory, regulatory, or other powers. In the United States, there are an estimated 735 such organizations that manage roughly 60 percent of all groundwater-fed irrigated acreage in the country. A national survey of these organizations found that 31 percent of them reported degraded water quality and 30 percent reported declining well capacity in 2019 as groundwater depletion concerns. These two issues affect about 53 and 59 percent of the acreage within organization service areas, respectively. When groundwater pumping exceeds the volume of groundwater recharge, the quality and quantity of the remaining water declines. For example, saltwater intrusion caused by groundwater depletion is a concern for many coastal and inland aquifers, since high salinity levels can hinder the growth of most common crops. Well capacity is another important groundwater depletion concern, since it limits the amount of water that can be applied to a crop within a given time, which can reduce irrigated crop yields and farm profits. Groundwater depletion has affected several of the nation’s most economically important aquifers, including the High Plains (Ogallala) and Central Valley aquifers. Additionally, 14 percent of groundwater organizations reported abandoned wells as an issue and 25 percent reported stream interaction issues, in which depleted groundwater can reduce streamflow and harm associated ecosystems. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service economic brief Irrigation Organizations: Groundwater Management, published in April 2023.