Vegetable Production in the US: Lots of Potatoes, More Kale, and Other Trends

April 25, 2019 | 9:21 am
Rebecca Boehm
Former Contributor

Vegetables—they’ve got me working overtime lately. That’s because my preschool-age daughter recently seems less than excited about these healthy foods. She’ll likely outgrow her (very common) picky-eater phase and enjoy vegetables. I hope.

And what’s not to love about vegetables? Copious research suggests that eating them helps prevent a variety of diseases, and other research (some of it mine) shows that vegetables and healthy plant foods are less carbon-intensive to produce than other foods.  But other studies confirm that Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables or fruits.

So naturally, when I heard that new findings from USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture were out, the first table I looked at was on vegetable production. (For a high-level overview of other trends evident in the census, check out my colleague Dr. Marcia DeLonge’s recent blog post.) So here are some key findings from my quick scan of data on vegetable production in the Census.

Total 2017 vegetable production was about the same as 2012

The new Agriculture Census reports that there were roughly 74,000 farms growing vegetables in the US, which represents 4 percent of all US farms in 2017. Between 2012 and 2017 the number of farms increased by 3 percent. Across vegetable farms there were 4.4 million acres in production (visualize the land area of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined), representing just 0.4 percent of all agricultural acreage in the US. Total production acreage of vegetables decreased by about 3 percent since 2012 (that’s 126,000 acres lost).

Potatoes dominate vegetable production

So which vegetable dominates vegetable production? Surprise, it’s potatoes! Potatoes account for a little over one-quarter of all US vegetable production acres (1.1 million) and 22% of all vegetable farms (or 16,554 farms). Not surprisingly, they also happen to be the most consumed vegetable by U.S. consumers.  Potato acreage declined by 3% over the five year period, while the number of farms also decreased by 21%.

Sweet corn came in second in terms of total acreage in 2017 and was grown on almost 500,000 acres, followed by lettuce (including head, leaf, and romaine), tomatoes, snap beans, sweet potatoes, and non-green onions. The graph below shows the number of farms and acres in production in 2017 for these top acreage vegetable crops. (Also, now is a good time to tell you that I like charts and graphs, so expect more of these in my blogs.) Compared to 2012, the number of farms and acreage in production declined for sweet corn, snap beans, and tomatoes, but increased for lettuce and onions.

The top five crops in terms of farm numbers in 2017 were: tomatoes (28,673 farms), squash (22,704), sweet corn (20,784), summer squash (18,269), and snap beans (18,055).

Production of certain nutrient-dense vegetables has increased since 2012

There were some changes in vegetable acreage and farm numbers relative to the 2012 Census of Agriculture that I found notable and relevant from a healthy eating and nutrition perspective. First, sweet potato (a relative of the morning glory, packed with vitamin A which supports vision and some evidence suggests it may be protective against some cancers) acres increased by 38% (or by 47,000 acres, roughly the size of Madison, Wisconsin) relative to 2012. Spinach, a dark green vegetable which the federal government suggests we ought to consume more of, acreage also rose from roughly 46,000 acres in 2012 to 70,000 acres in 2017, a 51% increase. Kale acreage, even though small in absolute terms, rose by 145% over the same time period. There were also substantial increases in acreage and production of ginseng, fresh cut herbs, mustard greens, and okra. Both acreage and number of farms producing Brussels sprouts (my family’s favorite, packed with vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant which helps support immune function) went up over the same time period, too. All of this suggests growing demand for these products.

Some vegetable crops lost acreage compared to 2012, most notably (because of how substantial a decline they experienced) green peas, chili peppers, some peas (such as black-eyed and crowder, the latter of which I find delicious), lima beans, and chicory. Interestingly, the number of farms producing these crops increased since 2012, suggesting that there is some restructuring of production happening for them. Why that’s happening is open to further inquiry.

This isn’t a full analysis of the vegetable production industry—I could spend many more hours looking at these data and examining trends over time and across crops (and I would enjoy that greatly). But these are some key findings that I found interesting on my first peek at the 2017 Census of Agriculture data.

So why should we care about US vegetable production?

First, trends in domestic production tell us something about consumer demand. U.S. consumer demand for vegetables is met with both domestic and imported vegetables. Recent data indicate we import about 30% of our fresh vegetables and by my calculations using USDA data, we import about 37% of all vegetables. From a total value perspective, this means that a substantial amount of what we consume is grown here. Consequently, changes in domestic supply tell us a little something about changes in demand (although it’s not the entire picture).

However, we are importing more and more vegetables, according to an October 2018 report from the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Higher levels of vegetable imports to the U.S. have upsides and downsides. In a recent interview, Bradley Rickard, Associate Professor at Cornell University, notes that more vegetable imports give “consumers access to more” vegetables and “the same things at lower prices”. That could be especially good news for consumers who may not be able to consistently afford vegetables if that is a barrier they face (although some research from USDA Economic Research Service indicates that vegetables can be less expensive compared to other foods on a per portion basis).

On the other hand, due to increased importation, domestic vegetable producers have to compete with producers in other countries that may have lower production costs. Competition such as this could hurt U.S. vegetable farmers.

While the US is a net importer of vegetables (i.e. we import more than we export), we do export some vegetables we produce and so international markets are important revenue sources for U.S. vegetable farmers.

Second, tracking vegetable production geographically is important from a climate standpoint. US vegetable production is concentrated in certain parts of the U.S. (see the map below, from the US Agriculture Census website) which means that extreme weather events, which are expected to become more frequent due to climate change, could potentially hurt the concentrated areas where vegetable production is clustered. In turn, this may have impacts on both vegetable consumers and producers.

Third, vegetable production is relatively labor intensive (measured as labor costs as a share of total gross cash income) compared to the production of other types of crops in the US. Recent reports show that some farmers—especially those in California who grow labor-intensive crops such as fruits, tree nuts, and vegetables—are increasingly experiencing farm labor shortages, which may impact the prices consumers pay for these products. As a result, trends in vegetable production are related to labor and immigration policy discussions.

Clearly, there is a lot at stake with U.S. vegetable production, for consumers and producers alike. While total acreage and number of farms growing vegetables hasn’t changed all that much since 2012, there have been some significant changes in the levels of production of specific vegetable crops. These specific changes warrant an additional inquiry into why they occurred, which may involve more digging into the Census or other data sources. This is what’s great about the Census of Agriculture. It tells us a great deal about American agriculture, while also stimulating additional questions that need to be answered.