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Land Use Overview

The United States is blessed with more arable land than any other nation on earth. Still, only about one-fifth of our land area (408 million acres (2007))(*2)is used for crop production. Grazing land for livestock accounts for about one-fourth of the privately held land in the U.S. (613 million acres (2007)(*2). In spite of a growing population and increased demand for agricultural products, the land area under cultivation in this country has not increased. While advanced farming techniques, including irrigation and genetic manipulation of crops, has permitted an expansion of crop production in some areas of the country, there has been a decrease in other areas. In fact, some 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development each day in this country. There was an 8% decline in the number of acres in farms over the last twenty years. In 1990, there were almost 987 million acres in farms in the U.S., that number was reduced to just under 943 million acres by 2000, and then reduced to 914 million acres in 2012 (*1).

Development pressure on farmland at the rural-urban interface is posing long-term challenges for production agriculture and for the country as a whole. This is especially significant since about two-thirds of the total value of U.S. agricultural production takes place in, or adjacent to, metropolitan counties (NRCS). About 1/3 of all U.S. farms are actually within metropolitan areas, representing 18% of the total farmland in this country (1992 – 1997 NRCS Report) (*3).

Two significant trends occurring in the agricultural sector during the past century involved the increased use of machines and government price supports. These factors combined to allow operators to increase the size of their farms and gain efficiencies.

While small farms still account for the majority of farms, economies of scale are driving the trend toward larger farm operations. The table below illustrates that the smallest farms, while high in numbers, comprise a very small percentage of overall farm land. The table also shows that farms in the highest economic sales class, are much smaller in number, yet those large farms use the highest percentage of farm land.

Table 1. Farms and Land in Farms by Economic Sales Class - U.S. 2012

Farms and Land in Farms: Percent of Total by Economic Sales Class, US 2012

Adapted in part from USDA NASS


1. US. USDA. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Farms, Land in Farms, and Livestock Operations ‎‎2012 Summary. N.p., 19 Feb. 2013. Web. ‎‎<http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/current/FarmLandIn/FarmLandIn-02-19-2013.pdf>.‎Exit EPA

‎2. "Major Land Uses Overview." USDA, Economic Research Service, n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-‎products/major-land-uses.aspx#25962>. Exit EPA

‎3. "New Acres of Developed Land in Metropolitan Areas, 1992-1997." USDA, NRCS. Web. 13 Dec. ‎‎2000. <http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/home/?cid=nrcs143_013807>.‎Exit EPA

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