Making the Country Work for the City: Von Thunen's Ideas in Geography, Agricultural Economics and the Sociology of Agriculture

By Block, Daniel; Dupuis, E. Melanie | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Making the Country Work for the City: Von Thunen's Ideas in Geography, Agricultural Economics and the Sociology of Agriculture


Block, Daniel, Dupuis, E. Melanie, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


E. MELANIE DUPUIS [*]

ABSTRACT. Geography, as the discipline responsible for describing the organization of space, has developed several ways of dealing with the phenomenon of the central city and its surrounding hinterlands. One of the most prominent of models used is von Thunen's Isolated State, a predictive model of how rural hinterlands organize agricultural production in relation to an urban center. Despite today's globalized food provisioning system, there are still some agricultural commodities that remain in U.S. city hinterlands. The most prominent of these is milk. The spatial organization of dairying is therefore a topic in which von Thunen's notions of centrality are still pertinent. In addition, outside of geography, his ideas had a significant effect on the agricultural economists who formulated dairy marketing policy. This paper will examine von Thunen and notions of centrality in the formulation of dairy policy in the United States. His contribution has been very important to agricultural economists and agricultura l geographers but less important to sociologists of agriculture, who see the spatial organization of food production around cities due as much to contingent, local political outcomes as to law-like notions of centrality. Comparative historical method in sociology has been particularly useful in determining the role of predictive models and contingency in determining the spatial organization of milksheds.

I

Introduction

GEOGRAPHY, AS THE DISCIPLINE RESPONSIBLE for describing the organization of space, has developed several ways of dealing with the phenomenon of the central city and its surrounding hinterlands. One of the most prominent models used is von Thunen's Isolated State, a predictive model of how rural hinterlands organize agricultural production in relation to an urban center. Von Thunen's thesis was that around a lone market city in the middle of a featureless plain, crops with high transportation costs and intensive uses of land would be produced nearer the market than would other types of crops. Whether or not a farmer grew a particular crop depended on his or her distance from the market. Distance determined land value and transportation costs and therefore the margin of profit from a particular enterprise needed to be sufficient to pay these costs. As a result, agricultural production organized itself as "rings of lowering production intensity around central cities.

In today's global food system, von Thunen's model seems a bit quaint: suburbs surround our cities and much of our high value agricultural foods come from the Central Valley of California or from around the world. Nevertheless, there are still some agricultural commodities that remain in city hinterlands. The most prominent of these in U.S. society today is milk. Despite a continuing lengthening of the trip milk makes to the consumer, especially with current merger craze making dairy farmer cooperatives into national organizations, most American cities still have in their vicinities a dairy "milkshed." This was predicted by von Thunen, who stated: "Next to fruit and vegetables, milk is a prime necessity for the Town; and as this is a difficult and costly product to transport and is ... highly perishable, milk too will be produced in the first ring" (1966 [1826], p. 9).

The spatial organization of dairying is therefore a topic in which von Thunen's notions of centrality are still pertinent. His ideas have had a significant effect on dairy marketing policy. This paper will examine von Thunen and notions of centrality in the formulation of milksheds and dairy policy in the United States. Our main purpose is to use the study of milksheds and dairy policy to view the manner in which the Isolated State theory entered three academic fields: geography, agricultural economics, and sociology. Geographers turned to von Thunen as a predictive model for land use around cities. …

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