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U.S. Farmland and U.S. Food - Are They The Same Thing?

As countries like Brazil and Ukraine grow into more dominant players in the commodity export market, the United States agricultural sector is considering some big questions about food systems, land use and our future place in global export competition. Can we produce more crops without using more land and maintain our position on the global stage?

Since the 1980’s the U.S. has experienced a steady decline in world production of grain crops. Productive farming in the 1970’s positioned the country as an agricultural leader with 57% of grain exports originating in the U.S. Today our global share accounts for only 20%. If current trends persist U.S. exports could account for as little as 10% of the world share in the near future.

Should We Rethink Agricultural Land Constraints?

The United States has made a significant effort to keep commodity production up and at the same time protect soil that is best suited to growing food.  It’s an intricate, and potentially problematic, system. While it aims to protect future food supplies and crop growth, it means that in the present millions of acres of agricultural land are tied up in conservation programs.

Protecting land, particularly the land that produces food for us and our livestock, is a valuable endeavor. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and its sister program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, aim to improve soil, allow for animal habitation, protect water quality and give farmland a chance to rest. Farmable Wetland Program and CLEAR30 are other conservation programs put in place to restore farmland and resources while providing farm owners cost sharing options, education, and technological assistance.

CRP took shape in the 1980’s after a farming boom that left farmers without buyers for their crops. The conservation program offered a solution for farm families who were getting bottom dollar for harvests and for the land itself to retire for a season. But it also means, depending on the program, land can lay idle for as long as 15 years. An argument can be made that this is a significant negative impact as it will become increasingly difficult for the U.S. to expand our export market if we are not able to expand our harvested land.

Investing in Farmland Inputs and Outputs

Less harvestable land spurred innovation. For decades the United States has invested in technology, plant genetics and chemical compounds to produce more crops on less ground.  Even with a steady decline, new practices and equipment have kept the U.S. competitive. 

Brazil is doing the same, building significant infrastructure to support larger crop yields, and they are also expanding their harvested land. If the goal is to maintain or grow our export shares, the U.S. might not be able to rely solely on tools that have served us well in the past to boost productivity. Despite all of our innovations, studies do show that production decline does have a correlation to less agricultural land in use. 

The opposite angle maintains that perhaps we don’t need to hold the same seat among global export giants.  United States farmland produces food for people and animals in many countries. In turn, we rely on other countries for our own food supplies. Production of produce has declined significantly in the U.S. as more good soil is used to grow crops that are exported out of the country or for ethanol. Rather than invest in growing and promoting export crops, maybe it’s time to shift the balance and repurpose grain crops and CRP land for the production of more produce for our own consumption. 

Who Owns Farmland in the United States?

Fingers have been pointed at large corporations, private entities, foreign born landowners, and urban sprawl for robbing us of rich farmland.  In reality, we haven’t been robbed of farmland, it’s still there. The question is how is it being used and how will it be used in the future?

What we have seen over the last 50 years is a decline in the small farm model of business, not necessarily the decline of farmland. The number of farms in the country has decreased, but the size of farms has increased. More farmland is consolidated under bigger operations.  Since 2007, the price per acre of farmland has almost doubled making it difficult for people to break into the business of farming and easier for big operations to absorb high quality land.

The majority of farmland is still privately owned. In 1983 12.8% of land in the United States was used for growing crops. By 2023 the percentage had dropped to 9.3%. According to records, between 1981 and 1987, 47 million acres of farmland transferred from actively harvested land to conservation programs. While not all land can be tied up in conservation programs, the numbers suggest that many private owners opt to participate in such programs perhaps to offset farming costs and keep a portion of land in production, or simply because they value the future potential of the land more than current harvest value.

Recently, the conversation has turned to foreign entities owning U.S. agricultural land. There is real fear that as populations rise, farmland won’t support food supply demands. While most food found in the pantries of American homes is at least partly sourced from foreign entities, the thought of other countries growing food on our own soil is what really ruffles feathers. Currently, acreage owned by foreign entities is not significant enough to jeopardize U.S. food security, but it adds another layer of complexity to the question; who owns American farmland and what are they doing with it?

Similarly, urban sprawl tends to catch the blame for disappearing farmland, when in truth, it accounts for a very small percentage of encroachment on harvestable land.

Available farmland does not automatically equate to an abundant supply of food.  And, acreage alone doesn’t secure price competitiveness in global markets. Technological innovation and agricultural policy are equally important components of long term prosperity. But, there is always a trade off. While we invest in one, are we short changing another?

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