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Land and Natural Resources

U.S. agricultural production relies heavily on the Nation’s land, water, and other natural resources, and has a direct impact on the quality of the Nation’s natural environment. Over the years, significant improvement in the sector’s productive use of resources has reduced the amount of land and water needed per unit of output, and concerted public and private efforts have greatly improved the sector’s environmental performance. These charts document several aspects of these trends.

Agriculture accounted for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2012. Given that agricultural production accounts for only about 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, it is a disproportionately GHG-intensive activity. In agriculture, crop and livestock activities are unique sources of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, notably from soil nutrient management, enteric fermentation (a normal digestive process in animals that produces methane), and manure management. GHG emissions from agriculture have increased by approximately 17 percent since 1990. During this time period, total U.S. GHG emissions increased approximately 5 percent.
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U.S. land area amounts to nearly 2.3 billion acres, with nearly 1.2 billion acres in agricultural lands. The proportion of the land base in agricultural uses declined from 63 percent in 1949 to 51 percent in 2007, the latest year for which data are available. Gradual declines have occurred in cropland and pasture/range, while grazed forestland has decreased more rapidly. In 2007, 408 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (-17 percent from 1949), 614 million acres were in pasture and range (-3 percent), 127 million acres were in grazed forestland (-52 percent), and 12 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (-19 percent).
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Agricultural production accounted for approximately 40 percent of the Nation's water withdrawals and 85 percent of total water consumption in 2005. Irrigated agriculture makes a significant contribution to the value of U.S. agricultural production, but also accounts for the largest share of the Nation's water consumption. Roughly 57 million acres—or 7.5 percent of all U.S. cropland and pastureland—were irrigated in 2007, nearly three-quarters of which are in the 17 western-most contiguous States. Irrigated farms were responsible for roughly 40 percent of the total value of U.S. agricultural production in 2007.
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Farmers have choices for how they prepare the soil; reduce weed growth; incorporate fertilizer, manure, and organic matter into the soil; and seed their crops, including the number of tillage operations and tillage depth. No-till is generally the least intensive form of tillage. Approximately 35 percent of U.S. cropland (88 million acres) planted to eight major crops had no-till operations in 2009, according to estimated tillage trends based on 2000-07 data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). Furthermore, the use of no-till increased over time for corn, cotton, soybeans, rice, and wheat—the crops for which the ARMS data were sufficient to calculate a trend.
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The USDA conservation effort relies mainly on voluntary incentive programs to address natural resource issues. Land-retirement programs remove environmentally sensitive land from production. Working-land programs provide technical and financial assistance to farmers who install or maintain conservation practices on land in production. Common practices include nutrient management, conservation tillage, field-edge filter strips, and fences to exclude livestock from streams. Agricultural land preservation programs purchase development rights from farmland owners to maintain land in agricultural uses.
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The CRP covered about 26 million acres of environmentally sensitive land at the end of 2013, with an annual budget of roughly $2 billion (currently USDA’s largest conservation program in terms of spending). Enrollees receive annual rental and other incentive payments for taking eligible land out of production for 10 years or more. Program acreage tends to be concentrated on marginally productive cropland that is susceptible to erosion by wind or rainfall. A large share of CRP land is located in the Plains (from Texas to Montana), where rainfall is limited and much of the land is subject to potentially severe wind erosion. Smaller concentrations of CRP land are found in eastern Washington, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta.
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Last updated: Wednesday, May 07, 2014

For more information contact: Kathleen Kassel

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