# 13.2.10: Von Thünen’s Model

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# Von Thünen’s Model

Weather, climate, and soils are important variables affecting the decision-making process of farmers, but the cost of transporting agricultural products is just as important. Two hundred years ago, economic geographer Johann Heinrich von Thünen recognized that because each crop presented a different set of transportation costs and challenges, profitable farming was partly dependent on distance to markets. His ideas led him to develop a theory of agricultural land rent that is now widely known as the Von Thünen Model.

Figure: An adaptation of Von Thünen’s Model that predicts and/or suggests ideal locations for agricultural production based on distance to market and cost of transportation.

This model incorporates several assumptions that are not always present in the real world, but the model is useful for understanding the decision-making process of agriculturalists. First, the model assumes that all farmland is of equal quality (topography, soil, water, etc.) and that no place has a transport advantage over any other (a river or rail line). Second, the model assumes there is only one market city where farmers sell their goods. Third, the model assumes farmers are economically rational: they understand how to maximize profit and always choose the most profitable use for their land.

Figure: Oxnard, CA. A sign protesting the conversion of prime farmland on the Oxnard Plain into suburban housing tracts. Consider the difficulty of creating laws to prevent farm loss.

Von Thünen argued that farmers living closest to the market city will produce dairy and/or fruits and vegetables because those products are both perishable and expensive to transport. Dairy farmers who live closest to urban markets will specialize in liquid milk, while dairy operations further from large cities will convert milk to less perishable dairy items like butter, cheese, and ice cream because those products are less perishable. It would be foolish, especially in 1826, for farmers living at a great distance to the city to specialize in foods that spoil quickly. Von Thünen argued that farmers living far from the city market specialize in grain crops because they are cheaply transported and can be stored for long periods. Tree crops, used for home heating in the 1800s, will be grown near the city because firewood was heavy and expensive to transport.

Figure: Union Stockyards, Chicago, IL 1947- livestock is prepared for slaughter near meat packing plants. Advances in transportation and refrigeration forced urban feedlots out of business by the mid-1900s. Source: Library of Congress

Von Thünen knew that farmland near cities was more valuable because that land was also valuable for those interested in building housing, factories, etc. If farmers living near cities wanted to maximize the value of their land by farming, they had to engage in intensive agriculture, like fruit and vegetable farming known as market gardening. Otherwise, they should simply convert their farmland to some other purpose to maximize their land rent. Farmers living further from cities, because they have greater costs associated with transporting crops to market, must engage in extensive agriculture, the type of farming best suited for less valuable land, which requires less costly farm labor.

Figure: The refrigerated rail car radically changed the way distance factored into the operation of the Von Thünen Model. Can you think of affected farm commodities? Source: Wikimedia

Technological innovations, particularly refrigeration and rapid transportation undermine some of the applicability of Von Thünen’s model today, but the logic behind it is still very potent, and current agricultural maps reflect the ongoing importance of transportation costs to farmers. New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago all have large hinterlands where farmers remain engaged in intensive market gardening and liquid milk production. New Jersey is called the “Garden State” for exactly this reason.

Market gardening farms still tend to be found in the US within a one-day drive to a nearby city’s central produce warehouse district. California, with the largest population of any state, therefore, leads the country in the production of fruits, vegetables, and milk – just as Von Thünen’s model would suggest. It’s not just the weather. Large grain farms continue to be rare in those same areas. The biggest changes from Von Thünen’s original model are the location of forestry operations and livestock feedlots. Thankfully, most hogs and cattle are fattened and slaughtered far from cities nowadays. Thanks to the elimination of wood as a heating fuel, fuel forestry regions, which once supplied wood to heat homes in the nearby city no longer exist.

Figure: Los Angeles, CA - Cattle Cars like this one in a museum were rendered obsolete by the invention of refrigerated box cars, which in turn allowed urban stock yards also obsolete.

13.2.10: Von Thünen’s Model is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.