In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Agricultural Geography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference and Atlas Resources
  • Agricultural Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Research Themes
  • Agro-Food Systems and Agricultural Structure
  • Multifunctionality and Pluriactivity
  • Agriculture and Climate Change
  • Conservation Programs and Policy
  • Water and Wetlands
  • Agricultural Land Change and Monitoring

Geography Agricultural Geography
Chris Laingen, Lisa M. Butler Harrington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0060


Agricultural geography as a strong focal area has declined since the mid-1990s. From the 1980s, it became more a subset of rural geography rather than an emphasis on spatial patterns and differentiation (focused particularly on “First World/Third World” differences in the 1960s to 1970s). Rural geography includes a breadth of topics relevant to rural areas and small towns, from social issues to natural resources management and land use. Traditional agricultural geography focused on spatial patterns and varying agricultural systems, particularly from a basis in economic geography and/or land use. As time has gone on, some connections have become mostly via human–environment perspectives on natural resources, sustainability, health, and food systems. In addition to shifting broad social concerns affecting work related to agricultural geography, modern industrial agriculture has spread to other world regions, with perhaps greater variability within particular regions (e.g., sub-Saharan Africa) than between regions. Broader considerations of social and economic conditions related to farming also have become more apparent since the 1970s. Agricultural geography today focuses specifically on farms (including ranches) and farming; production of food, fiber, and fuel; economic, policy, and resource issues related to agriculture; and farm household and livelihood concerns. There are connections between agricultural geography and related disciplines, particularly rural sociology and agricultural economics. It must be noted that, with the exception of the descriptive work by geographers in the Global North addressing conditions in the South, most of the work in agricultural geography has been produced in North America and Europe, with much less analytical work on agricultural conditions in other world regions. The works mentioned here are drawn from the English-language literature and are admittedly biased toward researchers based in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

General Overviews

Much of rural geography no longer places a strong focus on agricultural geography as a broad area of study, and many of the general background works are older. Because of this, they often are somewhat dated in terms of their descriptions of geographic patterns and the status of agricultural practices in different world regions. Those listed below are some of the sources most likely to provide good general portrayals of the topic. Ilbery 1985 presents a breadth of agricultural geography topics, all of which continue to be relevant to the subdiscipline. Similarly, Grigg 1995 offers a thorough introduction to the traditional concerns of agricultural geography, including global considerations and addressing international variations in the practices of agriculture. Grigg 1992 traces social and technological shifts and the development of modern (i.e., industrialized) agriculture in more industrialized and wealthier countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Bowler and Ilbery 1987 and Morris and Evans 2004 take on the changes in agricultural geography and the evolution to the broader rural geography (see Introduction) at different points in time. Agricultural geographers display varying attitudes toward industrialized (“conventional”) agriculture, with its tendency to require “getting big or getting out” along with adoption of high levels of mechanization and agrochemical use. Hart 2003 is “traditional” in this regard, displaying appreciation for agricultural entrepreneurs who have expanded their farming operations as he covers the trend toward fewer and larger farming operations, with various specializations, in the United States. Others (see Duram 2005, cited under Organic Farming and Sustainable Agriculture), support alternative agriculture, with appreciation of small family farms and organic farming practices.

  • Bowler, Ian R., and Brian W. Ilbery. “Redefining Agricultural Geography.” Area 19.4 (1987): 327–332.

    Takes up the identity of agricultural geography, with a proposal that it be broadened to include a political economy perspective, consideration of the “food chain” (which has occurred, with a rise in study of agro-food systems and “food geographies”), and more empirical work connecting agriculture with nonfarm aspects of rural places and economies, foreshadowing a growth in consideration of multifunctional agriculture and “pluriactivities.”

  • Grigg, David B. The Transformation of Agriculture in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

    Consideration of multiple aspects of agriculture, including land, labor, changes in productivity, and economic conditions, with a focus on historical shifts in agricultural production and agricultural systems in Europe and North America, from approximately 1800 to the later 1900s.

  • Grigg, David B. An Introduction to Agricultural Geography. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1995.

    A thorough, if somewhat dated, consideration of environmental, economic, biological, and technological aspects of agriculture.

  • Hart, John Fraser. “Half a Century of Cropland Change.” Geographical Review 91.3 (2001): 525–543.

    DOI: 10.2307/3594739

    A national assessment of cropland change in the United States from 1950 to 1997. While the country lost cropland, that was confined mostly to areas with poorer soils, or loss was occurring at the expense of development near the rural/urban fringe. Attention toward the end of the paper is given to the issue of urban sprawl and to what extent it may reduce the country’s capacity to produce enough food.

  • Hart, John Fraser. The Changing Scale of American Agriculture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

    An important contribution whose goal focuses on the dramatic transformation of US agriculture from small, self-sufficient farms to highly efficient, large-scale producers of food, fuel, and fiber. It accomplishes this by blending in-depth interviews with farmers and ranchers with statistical analysis of US Department of Agriculture data.

  • Hudson, John C. Making the Corn Belt: A Geographical History of Middle-Western Agriculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    A temporal and spatial reconstruction of one of the most recognized agricultural regions in the world. Follows early US settlers and land speculators in their search for land capable of becoming what we know today as the Corn Belt, from southern Ohio to its most current expansion northward and westward into the Great Plains.

  • Ilbery, Brian. Agricultural Geography: A Social and Economic Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Introductory materials and theoretical perspectives open the book, which includes sections covering decision making in agriculture, diffusion of innovations, economics (and relations to farm size, farm systems and relationships, and regional specialization), government policy, agriculture and urban fringe areas, and agricultural organization (cooperatives, contract farming, and agribusiness).

  • Morris, Carol, and Nick Evans. “Agricultural Turns, Geographical Turns: Retrospect and Prospect.” Journal of Rural Studies 20 (2004): 95–111.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0743-0167(03)00041-X

    Seeks out answers for why agricultural geography “turned” to a more culturally focused, postmodern, social theory–oriented subfield of rural geography in the late 1980s and early 1990s (in the United Kingdom). It then offers suggestions as to how traditional agricultural geographers and those focused more on “agri-culture” can form stronger bonds by creating new research models that blend cultural, political, and environmental themes.

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