Land use in America

On July 31, Bloomberg published an interesting overview of land use in the United States. The item takes the form of an annotated map divided into color coded squares. Each square represents 250,000 acres, so four squares equals a million acres. Data for determining land use appears to be taken mostly from USDA reports. There are six coded colors representing pasture/range, forest, cropland, special use, miscellaneous, and urban. The USDA categorizes special use areas as national parks, wildlife areas, highways, railroads and military bases, while miscellaneous areas include cemeteries, golf courses, marshes, deserts and other areas of low economic value.

You can view the map and information at or by searching for the title of the piece: Here’s How America Uses Its Land, By Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby, July 31, 2018.

Bloomberg is primarily a provider of business news, so the map annotations have a strong economic flavor. Nevertheless, they’ve teased out some interesting facts and figures regarding land use in America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the way they present agricultural land use data is somewhat unclear, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about ways to help non-agriculturalists more clearly understand how farmers and ranchers actually use the land.

According to the numbers in the Bloomberg piece, 391.5 million acres (Ma) are cropland, and that number represents about one-fifth of the U.S. land mass. Cropland acres are divided into idle/fallow (52Ma), ethanol/biodiesel production (38.1Ma), “food we eat” (77.3Ma), and livestock feed (127.4Ma).

Dividing cropland use into “food we eat” and livestock feed is a bit confusing for non-agriculturalists. It’s far from uncommon to hear people suggest that farmers should grow food for people only, and stop “wasting” all that land to feed animals. This is an understandable sentiment when you consider that about 98 percent of the U.S. population are non-agriculturalists and have rarely if ever set foot on a farm or ranch. It’s easy for people without agricultural experience to miss an important distinction – that livestock feed is converted into animal products which appear in the grocery store as meat, poultry, and dairy. Without making this point clearly, it’s perhaps better – and certainly more clear – to forget the distinction and combine the two categories into 205 million acres of food crop production.

In the next map annotation, the Bloomberg piece again emphasizes the distinction between people food and animal food. They note that while agricultural land takes up one-fifth of the U.S. land mass, people food is grown only in an area the size of Indiana, Illinois, and half of Iowa. As previously noted, this is a confusing and possibly counterproductive distinction, especially at this level of analysis. For all practical purposes, animal food becomes people food in the form of meat, poultry, and dairy. Making the distinction is rather like saying that crop seeds are wasted because they aren’t directly used to feed people. It’s also worth noting that not all land is suitable for farming. Most of the four-fifths of America’s non-agricultural land mass is unsuited to farming, as is most pasture and rangeland in the remaining one-fifth. Pasture and rangeland is where food animals graze, and this is the most efficient and economical way to produce people food from this non-arable land.

When it comes to grazing, the Bloomberg piece notes 41 percent of U.S. land is used for feeding livestock; 654 million acres for grazing and 127.4 million acres for raising animal food. Again with the animal food! As we pointed out before, livestock food becomes people food in the form of meat, poultry, and dairy. Furthermore, there is essentially no way that plant-based people food can be grown on grazing lands. The grasslands of the United States are simply not suited to farming. These areas are generally too dry for cropping, have soils which are unsuited to cropping, and are often too steep, broken, and rocky for cropping. Nature puts grass in these areas, and livestock are perfectly suited to turning grass into healthy, nutrient-dense people food. Rather than having to till and fertilize and plant and spray and harvest, people can simply use cattle to turn grass into people food. It’s hard to find a sector of agriculture that’s more ecologically friendly and sustainable.

The land use category with the smallest footprint is urban. These areas make up only 3.6 percent of U.S. land mass, but four out of five Americans (80 percent) live there. With this concentration of population, it’s perhaps unsurprising that most of the nation’s economic might is centered in urban areas. The 10 most productive urban areas produced 40 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016.

Going hand-in-hand with urban America is another common topic of discussion -- urbanization. Bloomberg reports that on average, urban areas have been growing at about one million acres per year. Since World War II ended in 1945 urbanized land mass has quadrupled. Urban encroachment is often seen as a bad thing, and there’s no escaping the fact that it turns relatively pristine areas of the countryside into roads, buildings, and parking lots. Even city dwellers often feel bad about paving over what used to be nature. Taken in scale and perspective, though, it’s not much land compared to the total land mass, and it ends up being economically hyper-productive as well as providing infrastructure for growing urban population areas. It’s also worth remembering that while some urban areas are growing in America, others are shrinking, and over time unused urban zones return to nature’s control.

For those of us who are agriculturalists, it’s worth spending some time studying land use patterns and thinking about what we do with our land and how it looks to our non-farming, non-ranching fellows. When the topic comes up in conversation it might be useful to be able to help the inexperienced folks gain in understanding.

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