5 Covering Agriculture: Glossary of Terms, Concepts

Understanding the basic terms associated with agriculture-related topics will give you the knowledge base to conduct solid interviews and identify key trends.

To get you started, here’s a list of keywords to familiarize yourself with:

Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933

This set up the system of price supports.

Agriculture Census

A treasure chest of information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on how the land is used, and what is raised on it.

Agronomy

The science of growing crops and managing soil.

Alternative farming

Basically anything but growing one crop with conventional fertilizer. Can mean using only manure for fertilizer, growing organic crops, using integrated pest control.

American Farm Bureau Federation

Mainstay farm organization, pushes for policies that benefit agriculture.

Animal unit

A unit of measure based on feed requirements. A 1,000 pound beef cow equals one animal unit, for example.

Aquaculture

Producing aquatic animals or plants in ponds, tanks or other controlled environments. Example: catfish.

Artificial insemination (AI)

The injection of semen into a female animal with a syringe.

Biological control of pests

The use of natural enemies such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control pests.

Biologics

Serums, vaccines and other living or inactive organisms used to prevent disease.

Biotechnology

Gene manipulation and transfer, plant regeneration and other techniques using living systems.

Brucellosis

A contagious disease in beef and dairy cattle. Causes abortions. In humans, known as undulant fever.

BST

Bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone. A hormone from the pituitary gland of cattle. Controls amount of milk produced by cows.

Combine

Machine used to harvest grain.

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)

Commonly called confinements, these are the increasingly concentrated livestock operations that are the backbone of today’s meat industry. They also are opposed by many environmentalists, small-scale farmers and others who see them as a unhealthy concentration of wealth and an environmentally dicey operation due to the amount of manure stored and spread in one area.

Census of Agriculture

Five-year check of the number of farms, land in farms, and other key statistics. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Chicago Board of Trade

Futures and options exchange, now run by CME Group. Prime source for grain prices.

Commodities

Grain, livestock, butter, milk, etc. For grain prices, see the Chicago Board of Trade.

Commodity Credit Corporation

Set up under USDA to protect farm prices. Includes loans that allow farmers to hold grain until prices rise.

Compost

Organic matter such as leaves or corn stalks that have been decomposed in a pile and turned into a soil-like material.

Conservation compliance

Some federal aid requires that farmers working highly erodible land follow a conservation plan.

Conservation district

Any unit of local government formed to carry out a local soil and water conservation program.

Conservation plan

Plans and practices meant to retain soil health.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

Voluntary program through U.S. Department of Agriculture that offers rent payments to farmers who use practices to save soil, which in turn provides wildlife habitat and can improve water quality.

Contour farming

Planting at right angles to the natural slope to cut soil erosion.

Contract feeder

Those who raise livestock, hogs for example, which are owned by someone else, often a corporation.

Co-ops

Cooperatives, which are organizations owned and run by farmers, who share in the responsibilities and profits. Many early ethanol plants were set up this way, as were long-standing grain elevator operations and some local power utilities.

Cooperative Extension System

A network that links land-grant universities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A good source of information and tips on a wide range of agricultural topics.

Crop rotation

Changing crops from year to year to keep the soil healthy. For example, planting soybeans after a corn crop because soybeans are a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil. Corn consumes nitrogen.

Dead zones

Areas of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Fertilizer runoff leads to algae blooms. When the algae die, oxygen is consumed, forcing sea creatures to move to a different area or die.

Disaster payments

Federal payments made to farmers when a natural disaster prevents planting or hurts yields.

Environmental Working Group

A nonprofit organization that has analyzed federal payments to farmers, showing that a small share get the bulk of the aid.

Ethanol

An alcohol fuel produced from corn, soybeans, sugar cane or other organic material.

Extension service

Education arm of land-grant universities, often with a wealth of information for reporters on both agriculture and climate.

Feedlots

Open areas where livestock, particularly cattle, are raised.

Fertilizer

Any organic or inorganic material used to feed a crop. Includes nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from synthetic sources and manure.

Fungicide

A chemical used to kill fungi on crops.

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade

Known as GATT, an agreement that sets conduct codes for international trade.

Genetic engineering

Genetic modification of organisms to transfer traits.

Genome

All the genetic material in the chromosomes of an organism.

Green manure

Plants plowed under to improve soil.

Head

The business end of a combine or other farm machine, for example the apparatus used to harvest corn.

Herbicide

Chemicals that kill weeds.

Hog lots

A somewhat old-fashioned term that connotes raising hogs in a feedlot. In most cases, you’ll be dealing with operations that raise hogs in climate-controlled, heavily automated confinement buildings, with thousands of hogs in a few buildings.

Humus

Decomposed organic matter in soil that provides nutrients and helps hold moisture.

Hydroponics

Growing of plants in fertilized water.

Integrated crop management

A system that uses cropping techniques to control pests, including the use of resistant plants.

Inputs

The items needed to grow a crop, including fertilizers and pesticides.

Local control

County zoning of livestock confinements. Not allowed in many states.

Leaching

The loss of fertilizer when rain washes it from the soil.

Legumes

Plants such as peas, beans, soybeans, peanuts, clovers, alfalfas, and sweet clovers that convert nitrogen from the air in to nitrates in the soil.

National Cotton Council

One-stop shop for industry news.

No till

Technique in which crop stubble is left on the field to hold soil in place.

Nematode

Microscopic soil worms that attack roots.

Nonpoint source pollution

Runoff from farms that can include soil, pesticides and chemicals.

National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)

Machinery in the Clean Water Act that requires permits for many industries and sewage plants that discharge treated wastes into rivers. Many livestock operations don’t need the permits, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to require them of larger livestock operations.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

Federal department, part of USDA that focuses on conservation and related work. Originally established as the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, its programs promote conservation on the 70 percent of the nation’s land that is privately owned.Nutrient. A chemical element or compound plants need to grow.

Organic farming

A system that avoids using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and growth regulators in feed.

Pesticides

Chemicals that kill crop pests such as root worms.

Price support programs

Government programs that attempt to keep farm prices above a certain level.

Public Law 480 (P.L. 480)

Common name for the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, aimed at expanding foreign markets for U.S. agricultural products.

Rangeland

Grassy areas used for livestock grazing.

Riparian rights

Legal water rights of a person owning land bordering a river or lake.

Ruminant

Animals such as cattle and deer with stomachs that have four compartments.

Silage

Fermented, chopped up grass, legumes, corn stalks used as animal feed..

Society of Environmental Journalists

Organization serving staff journalists and freelancers. Website includes huge topical index of sources. Member listserv offers advice on deadline. Annual conference often examines agricultural issues.

Sodbuster

Part of the Food Security Act of 1985 designed to discourage cropping on highly erodible land.

Soil erosion

T values. The soil erosion tolerance rate. Basically, the rate at which soil can be lost without losing too much. Takes into consideration how quickly new soil forms.

Sustainable agriculture

Systems that seek to grow crops and livestock while protecting the environment and using resources efficiently.

Swampbuster

Part of the Food Security Act of 1985 that discourages converting wetlands to crop fields.

Tillage

How the land is prepared for planting.

Yields

The amount of grain grown on a farm, usually expressed in bushels per acre.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

runs the main farm support programs, including aid payments and environmental programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers for planting natural habitat on marginal crop ground.

Zoonotic diseases

Diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.

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