Thirty Million Farm Acres Abandoned Since 1986

In 2022, a University of Wisconsin study claimed that U.S. farmers had converted several million acres of pristine grassland and other “semi-natural areas” to cropland.

Researcher Tyler Lark said that was in response to the Renewable Fuel Standard and ethanol production. Two years later, another study by Lark shows a different result. Using satellite imagery from the 2022 study, the newest one in March showed that between 1986 and 2018, over 30 million acres of cropland were abandoned and transitioned into grassland, permanent pasture, forest, shrub land, wetlands, or urban areas. That timeframe encompasses a period of rapid growth in ethanol production.

The new study concluded that among the abandoned croplands, 53 percent changed to grassland and pasture, 18 percent to shrub land and forest, eight percent to wetlands, and just five percent converted to urban-suburban land. The Dakotas, Kansas, and Montana saw some of the highest land conversion rates in the country.