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Agriculture of the USA. Trends in the development of the agricultural industry in the United States
Thanks to technology, natural endowments, and generous public supports, American farmers are among the most productive on earth. They produce roughly half the world's corn and soybeans, a fifth of its cotton, and a sixth of its meat. And they do all this with remarkably few hands - less than 2% of the U.S. population, and 0.1 % of world population.
While the share of the U.S. population living on farms has declined dramatically, from 44% in 1880 to 15% as recently as 1950 to 1.9% in 1991 - the land area devoted to farming - 43% - has changed little over the same period. That means that output per farmworker and per acre of cropland have both increased enormously. For farmers such gains do not come without a price. The proportion of large-scale farms has increased,
and all farmers are under pressure to invest in more and more machinery. Yet as they achieve greater productivity they develop a tendency towards chronic oversupply - bringing downward pressures on raw food prices. Between 1973 and 1993, the prices paid by farmers for equipment and materials rose 176%, while the prices received for their crops grew by only 45%. Government subsidies paid to farmers - which, it is often argued, disproportionally benefit larger operators - make up some of the difference, but the economic pressures on the tillers of the land cannot be blunted completely. It is not only the lure of the city that drives people off U.S. farms.
Federal farm subsidies, which amounted to nearly $18 billion in 1993, are not the only way the government supports the farm sector. Large-scale farming in the western half of the country would be nearly impossible without the vast water projects that cross the landscape; though much of the water infrastructure was built decades ago, over $2 billion of federal money was spent on such projects in 1993 alone. And another $3 billion
Х was spent on agricultural research and extension projects. The money may be well spent, but they belie the old image of the self-reliant farmer.
Family farms continue to dominate U.S. agriculture. Corporations own only 12% of U.S. farmland - but produce 26% of the value of output, making them over twice as productive as family-owned farms. Despite some hysteria in the mid-1980s about foreign takeover of U.S. cropland, less than 2% is actually owned by foreigners, and most of that is forest land. Individual owners are overwhelmingly white (99%) and male (96%), though many other family members of both sexes are pressed into service and their hired hands are disproportionally Hispanic (28% of the total). Many of these hired hands are migrants, who move about the country with the seasons, living and working under the worst circumstances - sleeping in crowded shacks, working without any protection from vile agricultrural chemicals, and paid a pittance for their labor.
At least the debt crisis of the early- and mid-1980s is over. In fact, by one measure, debt as a percentage of income, farmers are in better financial shape than they have been since the 1960s. That does not mean farmers are prospering; the average farming income for the self-employed farm family was over 13% below the average for families headed by nonfarm wage and salary workers in 1992.