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Long-Term Trends in Agricultural Production and the Nation’s Natural Resources

Posted by Daniel Hellerstein and Dennis Vilorio, Resource and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service (ERS) in Research and Science
Jun 25, 2019
Conservation Program Inflation-Adjusted Spending, FY 1996-2017 chart
Spending on all agricultural conservation programs increased from under $4 billion in 2001 to over $6 billion in 2013, and then declined to under $6 billion by 2017.

Agriculture is dynamic, adjusting in response to changes in the economy, technology, the environment, and policy – and agricultural production affects a wide range of natural resources. Understanding the complex links among public policies, economic conditions, farming and conservation practices, productivity and technological change, resource use, and the environment, is important for agricultural decision making. A new report from USDA’s Economic Research Service, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019, provides a comprehensive review of the use of natural resources (land and water) and commercial inputs (such as energy, nutrients, and pesticides) in the agricultural sector, as well as the impact of agricultural production on environmental quality. Here are just a few of the findings from the multi-chapter report.

Federal funding for the five largest voluntary conservation programs—which encourage retirement of environmentally sensitive lands and adoption of conservation practices on working lands such as conservation crop rotation, cover crops, nutrient management, and reduced tillage--was roughly $6 billion in 2017. But, from 2001 to 2017, the focus of that spending shifted from land retirement programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), to working land programs that provide financial assistance to farmers who adopt or install conservation practices on land in agricultural production such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). This shift was reflected in a decline in CRP acreage from over 33 million acres in 2001 to 23.5 million acres in 2017. Meanwhile, CSP and EQIP spending increased from about $285 million in 2001 to over $2.7 billion in 2017.

The report also details the introduction of precision agriculture technologies. For example, variable rate technologies (VRTs) have allowed farmers to make more customized land management decisions, enabling more efficient use of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides under variable infield conditions. This technology allows farmers to manage their inputs foot by foot, rather than field by field, and enable practices that both save money on inputs and reduce the on- and off-field impacts of those inputs. By 2016, between 15 and 40 percent of U.S. farms, depending on crop, used variable-rate application equipment.

In addition, technology development has driven increased agricultural water-use efficiency, and the continued investment in water conservation across farms is expected to further increase those water efficiency gains. In the 17 Western States, use of generally more efficient pressurized sprinkler systems to apply irrigation water increased between 1984 and 2013 from 28 to 59 percent of total applied water, with a corresponding decrease in use of less efficient gravity systems during that same time period.

For more information, please see the report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019 and more at

Category/Topic: Research and Science