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July 2012, Volume 18, Number 3

US: Sales, Crops, Livestock

US farm sales were $298 billion in 2007, including $144 billion worth of crops and $154 billion worth of livestock commodities. Fruits and nuts, $18 billion; vegetables and melons, $15 billion; and horticultural specialties, $17 billion; totaled $50 billion or a third of crop sales. Corn worth $40 billion was the major crop.

About 250,000 so-called commercial farms, each with sales of $250,000 or more, accounted for 85 percent of total farm sales. About 55,000 farms, each with sales of $1 million or more, accounted for 60 percent of total farm sales.

Net farm income was a record $101 billion in 2011, putting pressure on Congress to reduce subsidies in the farm bill for the 2012-16 period. The Senate approved a farm bill expected to cost $969 billion over 10 years in June 2012 that eliminates direct payments to farm landowners, which cost about $5 billion a year, and cuts about $4.5 billion over 10 years from the food-stamp program. Under the Senate version of the farm bill, expanded crop insurance would become the primary safety net for farmers.

The federal crop insurance program provides insurance to farmers to cover income losses due to low prices, poor yields, or both. Crop insurance is heavily subsidized; the federal government pays about 62 percent of the premiums, plus administrative expenses, or $7.3 billion in FY11. Most farm subsidies, but not crop insurance, have income or payment limits.

Crops. Corn is the most valuable crop grown in the US, and 96 million acres were planted in 2012 in the expectation of high yields and high prices. However, a summer 2012 drought promised to reduce yields and push corn prices higher.

Midwestern crop farmers grappling with weeds that have become resistant to Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate) want to plant corn that has been genetically modified to be immune from Dow Chemical's 2,4-D. However, fruit and vegetable growers who worry that drifting 2,4-D could kill their crops have linked the herbicide to Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War. Dow is also developing soybeans and cotton immune to 2,4-D, while Monsanto is developing soybeans, cotton and corn that can tolerate dicamba, another old herbicide in the same family as 2,4-D.

Roundup Ready seeds account for 90 percent of soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States. Palmer amaranth or pigweed has developed resistance to Roundup in southern cotton fields, forcing many farmers to employ hand weeding crews. Environmental groups urge cover crops and crop rotation rather than new herbicide-resistant crops.

Livestock. The FDA in April 2012 issued regulations that require farmers to obtain prescriptions from veterinarians before giving antibiotics to farm animals. About 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animals, and FDA asked drug makers to voluntarily change their labels to require a prescription.

Some farmers regularly give small amounts of antibiotics to cattle, pigs, chickens to speed their growth, but the result includes bacteria resistant to the antibiotic drugs' effects, endangering humans who become infected and cannot be treated with routine antibiotic therapy. Many infections acquired in hospitals resist routine antibiotics.

Local. The preference for locally grown food, called the locavore movement, may gain momentum from outside funding and farm labor shortages. USDA estimated that local farm sales were almost $5 billion in 2010.

There is no agreement on the definition of local food, nor a census of who produces local food. However, there is speculation that local food is more likely to be produced with US citizen workers than food produced on large farms and shipped across the country. In some cases, ex-farm workers are making the transition to be farmers producing for local consumers, as with Viva Farms near Seattle, a collection of plots farmed by ex-farm workers that produce vegetables for consumers and restaurants.

Kirk Johnson, "Small Farmers Creating a New Business Model as Agriculture Goes Local," New York Times, July 2, 2012.

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