From the nation's earliest days, farming has had a crucially important place in the U.S. economy, and stories extolling the virtues of farmers -- their initiative, hard work and self-sufficiency -- have long had a central place in the American culture.

A review of American agriculture reveals a mixture of heroic facts tempered somewhat by lingering myths. Farmers have never been as truly self-sufficient as folk history would suggest, since farmers have always been dependent to a large extent on factors outside of their control, such as the weather, the price of farm produce in the marketplace, and government policy. Yet American farmers have shown a spirit of individualism and egalitarianism that the rest of U.S. society has admired and often sought to emulate. As a result, this has given them a special power in U.S. political thought that still endures, even while their numbers have dwindled precipitously.

American farmers are known worldwide for their ability to produce a large yield per hectare. In part, this is due to the generosity of nature. Only in a relatively small area of the western United States is precipitation so limited that deserts exist. Elsewhere rainfall ranges from modest to abundant, and rivers and underground water permit extensive irrigation. Some of the richest farmland in the world can be found in the American Midwest.

The success of the American farmer is also a function of large capital investments and the increasing use of highly trained labor. Seeds have been scientifically developed and redeveloped to be productive and increasingly resistant to disease and drought. There is a calculatedly abundant use of fertilizer and irrigation. The machinery used in cultivation and harvesting lowers labor costs and time per unit of output. It is not unusual to see farmers driving tractors with air-conditioned cabs hitched to very expensive, fast-moving plowing, tilling and harvesting equipment.