More From Less: America’s Highly Productive Farms

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I’m Gwen Outen with the VOA Special English AGRICULTURE REPORT.

At one time, the United States was a nation of farmers.  In 1900, about 39% of Americans or thirty million people lived on farms.  A similar percentage of the labor force earned a living by working on farms.

By 1990, fewer than two percent of the population lived or worked on farms. There were also fewer farms.  In 1940, there were more than six million farms in America.  Today there are fewer than two million.

While the number of farms decreased, the size of the remaining farms increased.  The average farm today is about 200 hectares.  In 1900, it was 60.

As the United States became an industrial nation, its farms changed not only in size, but in their business plans.

In the past, farmers raised many different crops or animals.  For example, in 1900, almost all farms raised chickens.  More than 75% of farms raised pigs and milk cows.  In 1997, however, only about six percent of farms raised these animals.

The trend in American farming has been to specialize.  Farmers put their efforts into intensively raising only a few things.

New technology has helped create specialized systems that produce more using less labor.  Two examples of this are milk and corn.

Since 1924, American milk production has grown almost 100%. But the number of milk cows has decreased by half.  Cows today produce more than four times more milk than their ancestors eighty years ago.

The same is true for corn.  Improved kinds of corn produce about 4.7 times more corn per hectare than 100 years ago.

Economists call producing more with less an increase in productivity.  The Department of Agriculture uses a measure called an index to show how productivity changes.  It says America’s agricultural productivity increased by more than 100% between 1950 and 1996.

Over the same period, prices of agricultural goods fell by more than 50%.  So, the trend toward increased productivity has meant lower prices.  Many farmers have answered by increasing the size of their specialized operations. Information in this report comes from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

This VOA Special English AGRICULTURE REPORT was written by Mario Ritter.  I'm Gwen Outen.