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April 2021, Volume 27, Number 2

US Ag, Trade

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said his priorities are Covid, social justice and climate change, and strengthening regional food systems and helping farmers. USDA has 100,000 employees and a budget of $153 billion a year to operate 29 agencies and offices.

USDA moved the Economic Research Service from Washington DC to Kansas City, Missouri in September 2019, prompting many experienced employees to quit rather than move. ERS, which had 318 permanent employees in October 2018 and 164 three years later, published 37 reports in 2018 and 11 in 2020.

About two percent of US farms, some 35,000, were operated by Blacks in 2017, down from 925,000 or a seventh in 1920. Discrimination in the south and opportunity in the north prompted many Black farmers to migrate north to work in factories between the 1920s and 1960s. Land trusts help more Blacks become farmers, often using organic methods. There is pressure on USDA to allocate more of the $6 billion in loans administered or guaranteed by USDA to help farmers.

Farmland prices in the Midwest are rising along with the prices of corn and soybeans. The US has 350 million acres of crop land, and three-fourths is controlled by an eighth of farmers. Many landowners are widows or nonfarm investors such as pension funds. Some tenant farmers pay $200 or more an acre to rent land that generates less than $1,000 an acre in gross revenue.

The largest US landowners are John Malone, with 2.2 million acres, and Ted Turner, with two million acres. Bill Gates is the largest owner of farm land, with 242,000 acres owned directly and via Cascade Investments, half in Louisiana and Arkansas. Wonderful Company cofounders Stewart and Lynda Resnick own 190,000 acres of farm land, as does the Offutt Family with 190,000 acres. The Fanjul family owns 160,000 acres of farm land, and the Boswell family 150,000 acres.

Indoor vertical farms that use hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics to produce short-season and high-value fruits and vegetables in shipping containers and warehouses near consumers are expanding rapidly. Yields per unit of land inside structures are 10 to 20 times higher than in open fields, transport costs to consumer are lower, and grower prices are often higher for produce grown indoors.

Global sales of farm commodities from indoor vertical farms topped $2 billion in 2018, and are projected to be $13 billion in 2026. Plenty Unlimited is a US vertical farm and GoodLeaf Farms is Canada?s largest commercial vertical farming operation.

Trade. The US is the world?s leading exporter of farm commodities, shipping farm goods worth $150 billion to other countries in 2020 and importing farm commodities worth $146 billion, using international definitions. The US in 2020 adopted international definitions of agricultural products found in WTO HS Chapters 1 to 24 and parts of HS Chapters 29, 33, 35, 38, 41, 43, 50-53.

Previously, about 90 percent of agricultural products were included in the US and WTO lists. The switch to the WTO definition raised US farm imports more than US farm exports, reducing the US agricultural trade surplus.

US farm exports are expected to reach a record $157 billion in FY21, led by $27 billion worth of soybean exports, $14 billion worth of corn exports, and $7 billion worth of wheat exports. China re-emerged as the leading buyer of US farm commodities, importing meat and corn and soybeans to feed the world?s largest stock of hogs.

Dairy exports measured in total milk solids were a record 2.1 million tons in 2020, representing a sixth of US milk production. A quarter of US dairy exports went to Southeast Asia, a fifth went to Mexico and a sixth to China.

The International Trade Commission, in response to complaints from US growers, launched investigations into whether imported blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are hurting US producers of these berries. Some US vegetable producers are following the lead of Florida tomato growers to complain that rising Mexican exports of bell peppers and other vegetables hurt US producers.

In February 2021, the ITC concluded that imports were not damaging US blueberry growers, and that the lower prices received by some growers reflected an expansion of US production.

The US sheep industry continues to shrink, to 5.2 million in 2020. Some 2.2 million lambs were processed, generating $1.63 a pound for farmers. Over 60 percent of US lamb is imported. Many sheep graze on public lands in the western states, and rely on H-2A sheepherders.


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