North American Agriculture

North American Agriculture
North American Agriculture

North American crops include grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and plants for clothing and other nonfood uses. A discussion of modern agriculture in North America cannot be complete without some attention to agribusiness, the system of businesses associated with agricultural production in an industrialized society.

In North America, agriculture generally has become mechanized and heavily dependent upon an integrated system of supporting agribusinesses, although traditional practices continue in Mexico. In the United States and Canada, most farmers and ranchers depend heavily upon technology, although groups such as the Amish have rejected automation and continue to use animal power for traction.

Most farmers practice monoculture, relying upon a single crop for their primary income, and have expanded to very large acreages in order to take advantage of economies of scale. Such farms are referred to in terms of the primary crop, for example, a dairy farm, a cattle ranch, or a wheat farm. Some small farms are run by part-time farmers who also have other occupations.

Within the United States, there were 2,192,000 farms, cultivating a total of 954,000,000 acres, in the 1990’s. These farms produced net returns of $44.1 billion.

Although farmers represented less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, they successfully fed the country at a high standard of living, produced grain and other products for export, and still maintained a surplus carryover of as much as 2 percent of the total grown.

Regional Crops and Cultivation

Modern farming techniques in the United States and Canada require specialization in a single cash crop. Such specialized farms tend to cluster by region, where the climate and soil quality are appropriate to a given crop.

The supporting agribusinesses—such as suppliers of implements, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and grain elevators—tend to specialize in products and activities that support the primary crops of their given area.

Wheat, the most important cereal grain in Western diets, grows in the broad, open lands of the Great Plains, in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

In the southern part of this region, the primary crop is winter wheat, which is planted in the fall, is dormant during the winter, completes its growth in spring, and is harvested in midsummer.

In many of these areas, a farmer then can plant a crop of soybeans, a practice known as double-cropping. The soybeans often can be harvested in time to plant the following year’s wheat crop in the fall.

North American agriculture commodity
North American agriculture commodity

Farther to the north, where the weather is too harsh for wheat to survive the winter, farmers plant spring wheat, which completes its entire growth during the spring and summer and is harvested in the fall. Wheat is used to make bread, pasta, and many breakfast cereals and is an ingredient in numerous other products.

Corn, which originally was domesticated by American Indians, is the best producer per acre. It requires a longer growing season than wheat, so areas where it can be grown economically are limited.

The Midwestern states—Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio—are the principal areas for cultivation of corn and frequently are referred to as the Corn Belt states. Much corn is used as livestock feed, although a considerable amount is processed into human foods as well, often in the form of cornstarch and corn-syrup sweeteners.

Rice requires flooded fields for successful cultivation, so it can be grown only in areas such as Louisiana, where large amounts of water are readily available. Because labor costs are the primary limiter in U.S. agriculture, American rice growers use highly mechanized, single-field growing techniques rather than the labor-intensive transplantation technique used in Asian countries.

Laser levels and computerized controls tied into the Global Positioning System enable farmers to prepare smooth fields with a slight slope for efficient flooding and drainage. Because the ground is usually wet during tilling and harvesting, the machinery typically used in growing rice is fitted with tracks instead of wheels to reduce soil compaction.

Rye, oats, and barley are other major grain crops, although none form the backbone of an area’s economy to the extent that wheat, corn, and rice do. Oats, once a staple feed grain for horses, now is used mainly for breakfast cereals, while most barley is malted for brewing beer. Rye typically is used in the production of specialty breads.

Legumes, such as soybeans and alfalfa, form the next major group of crops produced in North America. In addition to being an important source of protein in human and livestock diets, legumes are important in maintaining soil fertility. Nodules on their roots contain bacteria that help to transform nitrogen in the soil into compounds that plants can use. Because of this, soybeans have also become a regular rotation crop with corn in much of the U.S. Midwest.

Both corn and soybeans can be grown with the same machinery and sold to the same markets, although harvesting corn requires a specialized corn-header that pulls down the stalks and breaks loose the cob on which the corn kernels grow, rather than the generalized grain platform used with soybeans and small grains.

Soybeans for human consumption generally are heavily processed and become filler in other foods, although there is a market for tofu (bean curd) and other soybean products.

Other crops include edible oil seeds, such as sunflower seeds and safflower seeds, which are generally grown as rotation crops with corn or wheat.

Sugarcane is grown in Louisiana and other areas on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico that have the necessary subtropical climate. Many varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown in California’s irrigated valleys; Florida grows much of the United States’ juice oranges.

Other citrus crops are grown in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas,where these warmth loving trees will not be damaged by frost. Fruits such as apples and pears, which require a cold period to break dormancy and set fruit, are grown in northern states such as Michigan and Washington and the eastern provinces of Canada.

Fibrous Plants

In addition to food plants, the production of fibers for textiles is an important part of American agriculture, although such artificial fibers as nylon and polyester have taken a share of the market. Cotton and flax also are important sources of natural fibers.

Cotton requires a long growing season and relatively high rainfall levels; therefore, it generally is grown in an area in the southern United States often referred to as the Cotton Belt. Flax has a shorter growing season and is often planted in rotation with such small grains as wheat and oats. Flax stems are used to produce linen, and edible oils and meal are obtained from its seeds.

Trees have become a cultivated species, although their long growth cycle has limited the ability of humans to create particular varieties. During the twentieth century, concerns about the environmental damage done by the clear-cutting of virgin forests for lumber and paper encouraged many companies to reseed the cut areas with tree species that could be harvested thirty or forty years later. Another form of tree farming, although on a much smaller scale, is the production of small evergreens for Christmas trees.

The Business of Farming

Because of the intense specialization of modern mechanized agriculture, farming has become a business interlocked with a number of supporting businesses.

Farm management—the control of capital outlay, production costs, and income—has become as vital to a farmer’s economic survival as skill in growing the crops themselves. Such organizations as Farm Business/Farm Management help farmers develop the skills needed to farm more productively and economically.

Farmers also have had to become actively involved in the marketing of their crops to ensure an adequate income. In many areas of the United States and Canada, farmers have banded together in cooperatives to gain economic leverage in buying supplies and selling their products.

Some of these cooperatives have taken on some of the preliminary and intermediate steps in transforming the raw farm products into consumer goods, thus increasing the prices farmers receive from buyers.

Modern farmers also are concerned with the management of the resources that support agriculture. In earlier generations, it often was assumed that natural resources were unlimited and could be used and abused without consequence.

The result of this ignorance was ecological destruction such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, in which the topsoil over large areas of U.S. Plains States dried up and blew away in the wind, rendering the land unfarmable.

To prevent more disasters and the economic dislocation they produced, various soil conservation measures were introduced through government programs that gave farmers financial incentives to change their practices.

The use of contour plowing and terracing on steeply sloping hillsides helped to slow the movement of water that could carry away soil, thus preventing the formation of gulleys. Reduced tillage techniques allowed more plant residue to remain on the surface of the soil, protecting it from the ravages of both wind and water.