Cropland Decline?

USDA releases latest accounting of U.S. land uses
By Holly Jessen | January 11, 2012

A quick glance at the “Major Land Uses” report released in December by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, reveals some interesting statistics about total cropland area. The report, which was first released in 1945, is compiled about every five years, coinciding with the latest Census of Agriculture.

This year’s report is based on 2007 land uses and puts cropland at 408 million acres—the lowest level since the first records were taken in 1945. That’s 34 million acres, or 8 percent, below the previous low in 2002.

However, digging deeper into the report shows that the decline is partly due to a change in how the 2007 Census of Agriculture estimated cropland pasture, one part of total cropland. From 2002 to 2007 there was a 26 million acre decline in cropland pasture, offset by a 27 million acre increase in grassland pasture and range. In other words, the methodological change by the Census of Agriculture meant millions of acres of cropland pasture were reclassified from temporary to permanent pasture. “Indeed, a comparison with National Resources Inventory data suggests that much of the change may be a result of the methodological change rather than an actual land use change due to farm operator or owner decisions,” the report said. “Because of the change in methodology, these two estimates are not strictly comparable with prior years.”

What of ethanol’s potential impact on land use change, which critics have so loudly decried? The report does briefly address this question, concluding that since the data is presented only though 2007, it doesn’t address more recent developments. “In recent years, higher corn prices, driven partly by increased demand for corn as an ethanol feedstock, have contributed to complex changes in the production of principal crops,” the report said.

It also examines data from a survey of corn and soybean farmers published in “The Ethanol Decade: An Expansion of U.S. Corn Production.” This USDA report found that expansions in corn acreage from 2006 to 2008 were a result of soybean farmers shifting acreage to corn production. That shift from soy to corn was offset, however, by other shifts, primarily cotton into soybeans. “Total acreage in harvested crops on corn and soybean farms expanded, with about a third of the increase due to shifts from hay and CRP land, as well as increases in double-cropping and a reduction in idle land,” the land use report said.—Holly Jessen