The land surface of the United States covers 2.3 billion acres. Sixty percent (1.4 billion acres) is privately owned, 29 percent is owned by the Fed-eral Government, 9 percent is owned by State and local governments, and 2 percent is in Tribal reservations. Virtually all cropland is privately owned, as is over half of grassland pasture and range and forestland. Federal, State, and local government holdings consist primarily of forestland, rangeland, and other land.
Historic Land Ownership Patterns
Land ownership patterns changed substantially in the first century after U.S. independence. Between 1781 and 1867, through purchase, cession, and treaty, the Federal Government acquired lands totaling 80 percent of current U.S. area, constituting the original “public do-main.”
As of 1998, 1.1 billion acres of the original public domain (about half of the total U.S. area) had been granted or sold by the Federal Gov-ernment to States, corporations, and individuals. Grants to States totaled 329 million acres, including 65 million acres of wetlands granted on condition that proceeds from their subsequent sale to individuals be used to convert those acres to agricultural production. Another 288 million acres were granted or sold directly to homesteaders on condition that the land be settled and cultivated.
Disposition of Federal lands had slowed by the 1930s, and in 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act explicitly directed that most remaining Federal lands be retained in Federal ownership.
Federal and State Lands Today
Most lands in Federal ownership are managed by four agencies: USDA’s Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS). Federal lands are concentrated in the West. Alaska alone has about one-third of Federal land. Forest Service and BLM lands are managed for a variety of uses, including grazing, tim-ber harvest, recreation, and wilderness preservation, while FWS and NPS lands are managed primarily for preservation and recreation.
Leasing land was traditionally viewed as the bottom rung of the tenure ladder. Young farmers would begin their careers by leasing all their land, often from relatives. As they grew older, they would buy some land, but continue to rent. Older farmers would cut back on farming by no longer leasing and concentrate on the land they owned.
Land rental has some advantages over outright ownership. Through land rental, a farmer can access more land without tying up capital in land purchases. The farmer also avoids the risk associated with asset depreciation and maintains flexibility in the size of the operation and the combination of the types of land used.
The number of farms declined from nearly 7 million in 1935 to about 2 million by 1997, with most of the decline occurring before the 1970s. Although the remaining farms have a higher average acreage than in the past, most farms today are small, when size is measured in acres or sales. Small family farms currently account for only 32 percent of production, but operate 61 percent of the land used in farming, including large shares of the Nation’s cropland, grazing land, and woodland.
What Is a Farm?
Since 1850, when minimum criteria defining a farm for census purposes were first established, the definition of a farm has changed nine times as the Na-tion has grown and agricultural production has changed. A farm is currently defined, for statistical purposes, as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products (crops and livestock) were sold or normally would have been sold during the year under consideration.