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Understanding American Agriculture

For most Americans, farms are the place you drive to when you want to go apple picking. While we know that crops and animals are raised there, we probably don’t give them much thought past the final product at the grocery store. That could be changing thanks to efforts to educate more Americans on the agricultural industry. Organizations like the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture and the Farm Bureau aim to teach Americans about farming so they’ll have a greater understanding of where their food comes from, who grew it, why it was grown a certain way, and how it gets from the farm to table.

Initiatives to educate Americans about agriculture are not new. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act was adopted to promote vocational education in agriculture and other trades. But lately there’s been another push to give Americans more insight into farming — partly due to the increasing disconnect between the food supply and the overall population.

Fewer than two percent of Americans now live on farms amid an ongoing migration away from rural areas and into cities and suburbs. A study conducted by Michigan State University found that nearly half of Americans say they never or rarely seek information about where their food was grown or how it was produced. Yet agriculture remains a vital part of the American economy and a major supplier of food worldwide. Thanks to its size, geographic diversity and efficient farming methods, the U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter of food, with exports totaling about $140 billion in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The top food-producing states include California, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska and Illinois.

The USDA notes that agriculture, food and related industries contributed more than $1 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2017, or about 5.4% of the total. But those numbers are misleadingly low because so many other economic sectors – including forestry, construction, textiles, apparel and foodservice — all rely heavily on agriculture.

Here are some quick facts that can help put the importance of agriculture into clearer focus:

  • The U.S. is home to 2.1 million farms, nearly all of which are family-owned.
  • The top three farm products are cattle and calves, dairy and corn.
  • Agriculture employs more than 24 million Americans.
  • On average, a single U.S. farm can feed 166 people every year in the U.S. and abroad.

All 50 states produce food, and most can lay claim to being a leader in some category or another, whether it’s pineapples in Hawaii, corn in Ohio, maple syrup in Vermont or grapefruits in Florida. Although California is the top food-producing state, Texas has the most farms in the country at nearly 250,000. Iowa leads the nation in egg and hog production, while the average farmer in Illinois can feed 156 people.

Agriculture doesn’t end at the farm, of course. Once a product leaves the farm, it goes through a long and sometimes complicated supply chain before reaching its ultimate destination. Eater noted that in 2019, a research team at the University of Illinois found that there are millions of tiny links between U.S. counties when it comes to food production and distribution. The team’s lead researcher used the example of a shipment of corn to illustrate how food gets from one place to the next. The corn might be grown and harvested at a farm in Illinois, then travel to a grain elevator in Iowa, and then to a feedlot in Kansas, where it’s consumed by animals. Those animals are then used to produce meat, dairy or eggs, all of which are individually processed, packaged and loaded into trucks, which work their way to various distribution points.

Eventually, those trucks start heading in all directions, whether it’s to a grocery store in Oregon, a restaurant in North Carolina – or your own refrigerator.

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