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Image: Farm Economy

Major Land Uses

The U.S. land area covers nearly 2.3 billion acres. Since ERS's Major Land Uses (MLU) series began in 1945, forest uses have accounted for the largest share of the Nation's land base, due to extensive forests in Alaska. In the conterminous 48 States, grassland pasture and range represents the largest share of the land base. About 51 percent of the U.S. land base (including Alaska) is used for agricultural purposes, including cropping, grazing (on pasture, range, and in forests), and farmsteads/farm roads.

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Land shifts into and out of uses for a variety of reasons. Changing commodity and timber prices, agricultural and natural resource policies, urban pressure, and, more recently, bioenergy policies prompt private landowners to shift land to uses that maximize economic returns. While land moves into and out of certain uses—such as between forestry, grassland, and cropland—once converted to an urban use, land rarely transitions back to less-intensive agricultural or forestry uses. The ERS report Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007 analyzes trends in all of these land uses and examines general factors driving land-use changes. Other ERS research takes a more indepth look at particular issues—including farmers’ land-use decisions in response to ethanol-induced increases in demand for corn (see The Ethanol Decade: An Expansion of U.S. Corn Production, 2000-09, EIB-79, August 2011), the role of crop insurance and other farm programs in grassland to cropland conversions (see Grassland to Cropland Conversion in the Northern Plains: The Role of Crop Insurance, Commodity, and Disaster Programs, ERR-120, June 2011), the effects of drought risk on participation in land retirement programs (see The Role of Conservation Programs in Drought Risk Adaptation, ERR-148, April 2013), and effective targeting of conservation funding to maximize benefits of restoring and conserving wetlands (see Targeting Investments To Cost Effectively Restore and Protect Wetland Ecosystems: Some Economic Insights, ERR-183, February 2015).

Technology has also affected land use and regional land-use shifts, especially in cropland. The rapid adoption of new technology, improved crop varieties, improved insect and disease control, and other changes has boosted agricultural productivity so that more production can be obtained from the same cropland base. See Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States: Measurement, Trends, and Drivers (ERR-189, July 2015) for a discussion of the growth in agricultural productivity related to land and The Changing Organization of U.S. Farming (EIB-88, December 2011) for a broader discussion of changes that have occurred in farming since 1982.

Although the spikes in commodity prices and farmland values that began in 2006 might suggest that more land would be shifted into cropland uses, ERS analyses reveal that in 2007, total cropland area—which includes cropland used for crops, idled cropland, and cropland used for pasture—reached its lowest level since the MLU series began in 1945. Trends vary by region, however. While cropland used for crops (the dominant component of total cropland) increased in the Corn Belt over the last five decades, both the Northeast and Southeast have experienced a long-term decline in cropland due to urban pressures and a comparative disadvantage in the production of many crops. Even when cropland acreage appears relatively constant at a national level, the mix of crops produced changes in response to market forces and policy changes. For example, historically high prices for corn in recent years have contributed to significant increases in land planted to corn, which—at 92.6 million acres in 2007—was at its highest level in more than 44 years. At 10.4 million acres in 2007, cotton acreage was at its lowest level since 1963.

These trends are examined in Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007 (EIB-89, December 2011), which provides analyses of land use for principal crops, as well as a changes in other land-use categories over time. Other ERS research has analyzed how increases in corn plantings have led to complex adjustments in other cropping decisions (see The Ethanol Decade: An Expansion of U.S. Corn Production, 2000-09, EIB-79, August 2011), and trends in double cropping as a means to increase production (see Multi-Cropping Practices: Recent Trends in Double-Cropping, EIB-125, May 2014).

Links to key land-use data sources:  

  • MLU Data Series: Starting in 1945, and published about every 5 years since, coinciding with the Census of Agriculture.
  • Maps and State rankings in data visualizations from the MLU series.
  • Land Use and Land Cover Estimates: This overview of land use and land cover data sources provides details on the definitions, coverage and methodologies by different U.S. Government agencies.
  • NASS Quick Stats: Access to Ag Census and other National Agricultural Statistics Service data. Choose "AG LAND" under the Commodity selection to get started.

Last updated: Tuesday, May 17, 2016

For more information contact: Daniel Bigelow