Magazine article Amber Waves

How Is Land in the United States Used? A Focus on Agricultural Land

Magazine article Amber Waves

How Is Land in the United States Used? A Focus on Agricultural Land

Article excerpt

How land is used and changes in land use have implications for commodity production and trade, soil and water conservation, bioenergy supply, climate change adaptation, and many other policy issues. A complex set of factors, including commodity prices; production technology; demand for land for residential, commercial, and industrial development; and agricultural and bioenergy policies, can induce land-use change as landowners respond to market conditions and try to maximize the returns to their land.

For over 50 years and in roughly 5 -year intervals, ERS has synthesized data from a variety of Federal and other sources to develop national and State estimates of land in various uses, including cropland, pasture and range, and forest. These data are used to develop a consistent set of national estimates that provide insights into how land uses change over time. The ERS Major Land Uses series is the longest running accounting of all major uses of public and private land in all 50 States.

U.S. land area covers nearly 2.3 billion acres. The proportion of the land base in agricultural uses has declined from 63 percent in 1949 to 51 percent in 2007. Gradual declines have occurred in cropland and pasture and range, while grazed forestland has decreased more rapidly.

In 2007, 408 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (down 17 percent from 1949), 614 million acres were in pasture and range (down 3 percent), 127 million acres were in grazed forestland (down 52 percent), and 12 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (down 19 percent). Nonagricultural uses have increased from 37 to 49 percent of the land base, largely due to a fourfold increase in National Parks and National Wilderness/ Wildlife areas, particularly in Alaska.

Market forces, changes in farm programs, and changes in technology affect the supply and demand for land used for crop production. Between 1949 and 1969, cropland used for crops decreased by 54 million acres and then peaked at 383 million acres in 1982, when no cropland was diverted through Government-acreage reduction programs. Since 1980, cropland used for crops has been relatively stable, despite significant variation in commodity prices (see "Commodity Prices Vary More Than U.S. Cropland Acreage" in this issue).

Relatively stable patterns of changes in land use at the national level obscure larger shifts in land use at regional and State levels. For example, between 1964 and 2007, cropland used for crops - the acreage devoted to crop production in any year, including cropland harvested, land on which crops failed, and cultivated summer fallow - increased by 11 million acres in the Corn Belt and decreased by a net 11 million acres in the remaining regions. …

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