Contrary to what you may think (and what your food labels may suggest) corn is not the most grown crop in America. The most grown crop is something no one is eating, no one is asking for, and no one is quite sure what to do with. It’s your lawn.
Top image: Satellite imagery of crops growing in Kansas / NASA Earth Observatory.
The U.S. devotes a full one-fifth of its land to agriculture (408 million acres, or 637,500 square miles) for farmers to grow on, of which corn is the largest food crop. However, there are almost 50,000 square miles of lawn growing in the U.S.—almost three times as much as corn.
So how does the country with the most farmland on the planet end up with a number one crop that’s purely decorative? It’s down to two things: Scale and a strange twist of technological history.
The History of the Lawn
Today, lawns are merely what you use to fill up an empty patch of dirt. They are the thing so common, so known, that the eye doesn’t even bother to stop and take them in, except in their absence. But that wasn’t always the case.
The very first lawn care instruction manual dates back to the 13th century written by Italian horticultural enthusiast, Pietro de Crescenzi. Just like lawn enthusiasts today, de Crescenzi had his own unique ideas of how to properly care for a lawn, though his favorite two practices—of first preparing the ground by dumping boiling water all over it and then limiting mowing to twice a year—failed to make it into the wider favor.
It wasn’t until about 400 years later, though, that lawns as we know them began to be seen commonly, and even then they were largely the province of the super-rich. The lawn was a symbol of that wealth, of course—of the kind of household that could afford to turn large tracts of land over to the cultivation of something essentially useless. But it was also considered something of a technological, perhaps even artistic, marvel. To understand just how much of one those early lawns were, you have to put yourself, briefly, in a pair of 17th-century shoes.
Image: A painting of Versailles—and its famous lawn and surrounding garden in 1668, Pierre Patel / Chateau Versailles.
Grass, when it was cut at all, was cut using hand tools (hence de Crescenzi’s early suggestion of a twice yearly mowing schedule). These were perfectly serviceable, but not particularly neat and certainly not anything even approaching manicured. To come across a well-kept lawn—green, neatly-edged, hewn down to a perfectly uniform height by an army of servants, and laid out tidily like some kind of outdoor carpet—was a kind of shock to the senses. It was something stunning, something a little uncanny, something deeply familiar turned strange.
What finally changed that was the invention of the lawnmower by English engineer Edwin Budding in 1830, who took the idea from the weaving machines he saw in the cloth mills. Suddenly, what could once only be accomplished by a staff of dozens of gardeners obsessively wielding a set of scythes, clippers and hoes, could now be done in an afternoon by one only vaguely attentive person. With labor no longer such a limiting factor, lawns started to appear more and more frequently in cities, which could now afford to throw down lawns in public spaces.
Image: Vintage lawnmower ad, 1954 / Simplicity.
By the start of the 1900s, that early push-mower had been replaced by the gas-mower and was being marketed to individual homeowners, who were also rapidly acquiring lawns of their own. Within a century, lawns had gone from the high-luxury market to simply the thing that filled the blank spaces around us.
Corn Vs. Grass: The Grudge Match
Okay, the lawn has become pretty hard to escape, it’s true. But corn is also one tough agricultural contender to battle with. America grows more corn than any other country in the world and it is the subject of our most intense agricultural fascination, research, and scrutiny. It’s our top agricultural crop and is grown across more than 400,000 U.S. farms, most of them dedicated primarily to corn. So how did the lawn manage to not just edge out corn, but trounce it three times over, all while barely meriting more than a passing glance from most farmers? Essentially, the triumph of lawns is a triumph of scale.
Most patches of lawn are small enough that, unlike farms, you can’t use satellite data to tally it up, which means that for a long time researchers didn’t even know how to get an accurate count of how much lawn we were growing. Finally, researcher Cristina Milesi came up with a project through NASA’s Earth Observatory using a combination of satellite data, aerial photographs, a measure of the total paved areas in the U.S., and a newly-derived mathematical formula to come up with this map of lawns around the nation:
Image: Lawns across the U.S. / Milesi via NASA Earth observatory.
It doesn’t look like much, spread out across the country like that, but together it adds up to 128,000 square kilometers (or about 50,000 square miles) of growth, three times that of the U.S. land occupied by corn.
It turned out that while corn was busily winning the farm, lawns were winning the home. Corn may be the apex predator of the farm, but lawns are our housecats: small, tidy, exceptionally demanding, and everywhere. In the end, lawns didn’t need the farm to survive—instead they just made farmers of us all.