# Von Thunen Model

Benjamin Franklin compared New Jersey to a "barrel tapped at both ends." Ben meant that New Jersey's gardens—its vegetable and fruit farms—supplied the markets of both Philadelphia and New York City. New Jersey is known today as the "Garden State" because of this former function. Read on to find out how a great 19th-century German economist would have explained this, the rings of the model, and more.

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## Von Thünen's Model of Agricultural Land Use

In the early 1800s, northern Germany was a rural landscape of commercial farmers who grew agricultural products for their local market. Johann Heinrich von Thünen (1783-1850), in search of a way to explain and improve the land-use patterns he saw, wandered the fields and villages and pored over economic figures. He wondered, how much profit did landlords make? What were the costs to take certain things to market? What were the profits for the farmers once they reached the market?

In 1826, von Thünen published his landmark economic thesis, The Isolated State.1 This contained an abstract model where he applied economist David Ricardo's ideas about land rent to an agricultural space. This was the first economic geography theory and model and has hugely influenced agricultural, economic, and urban geography and related fields.

The basic idea is that the rural landscape has a specific spatial pattern because it results from competition for land. The profits that economically competitive farmers earn from different agricultural activities determine where those activities will be found in relation to the market town where they will sell their products.

## Von Thünen Model Definition

The Von Thünen Model uses a simple equation to predict what land use is going to occur at any given point in space:

$R=Y\left(p-c\right)-YFm$

In the equation, R is the land rent (or locational rent); Y is the agricultural yield; p is the market price of a product; c is how much it costs to produce; F is how much it costs to get the product to market; and m is the distance to market.

This means that at any point in space, land rent (the money made by the landowner, who rents to the farmer) will be how much a product is worth once you subtract the cost to produce it and ship it to market.

Therefore, whatever costs the farmer the most will be located closest to the market, and whatever costs the least will be farthest away. For the person who owns the land that the farmer rents from, this means that the cost to rent the land will be the highest closest to the market town and drop as you move away.

The Von Thünen Model is closely related to bid-rent models in urban geography. Understanding how the Von Thünen Model can be adapted to modern rural landscape analysis and urban settings is crucial for AP Human Geography. For additional in-depth explanations, see our Land Costs and Bid-Rent Theory and Bid-Rent Theory and Urban Structure.

## Von Thünen Model Rings

Fig. 1 - black dot=market; white=intensive farming/dairy; green=forests; yellow=grain crops; red=ranching. Outside the circles is unproductive wilderness

The brilliance of von Thünen is that he applied land rent theory to an abstract "Isolated State" that predicts what the rural landscape will look like in many ways.

### Urban Market Center

The urban center can be any size, as long as it is at the center of the space. Farmers take their products to market there. The town also has many horses for transport (pre-car, pre-railroad), so a vast quantity of manure is produced that needs to be disposed of quickly and cheaply. But where?

### Intensive Farming/Dairy

Voila! Surrounding the town is a ring of high-value farms producing crops that must get to market quickly, so they don't spoil. (No electricity or refrigeration in those days.) The manure from town is disposed of there, further increasing the soil quality.

New Jersey is the "Garden State" because much of it lay in the first rings of New York and Philadelphia. The state's nickname refers to all the truck gardens from the state's fertile farms that supplied these two metropolises with their dairy and produce before the age of refrigeration.

### Forests

The next concentric ring out from the market town is the forest zone. Von Thünen, focused on maximizing profit rationally, categorized forests purely in relation to their economic utility. This meant the forest was for firewood and timber. The forest is relatively close because it costs a lot to ship wood (via ox-cart or horse-driven wagon) to the city because it is quite heavy.

Fig. 2 - Ox-cart in India approximates what the most common mode of transport in early 1800s Germany would have looked like

### Grain Crops

The next ring out contains grain crops. These can be farther away because grain (mostly rye at the time), while essential for Germans' daily bread, was lightweight and didn't spoil quickly.

### Ranching

The last zone out from the market center is ranching. This can be the farthest because animals could be driven to market under their own power in those days. This zone was covered with extensive pastures, and in addition to selling the animals, farmers made money from cheeses (which don't spoil quickly), wool, and other animal products. Wool from sheep could be grown at the greatest distance because it was so valuable and did not spoil.

Beyond the ranching zone was wilderness. It was land too far from the market to be of any value for farming.

## Von Thünen Model Assumptions

Von Thünen created an abstract model called the "isolated state." This simplified and generalized geographic conditions. His main assumptions:

1. The market is at a central location.
2. The land is homogeneous (isotropic), meaning it is flat and without mountains or rivers (rivers would allow transport), and it has the same climate and soil everywhere.
3. Farmers don't use a road network but instead travel to the market in a straight line across the landscape.
4. Farmers seek the highest profits and are unburdened by cultural or political considerations.
5. The cost of labor doesn't vary from place to place.

The main assumption of Von Thünen's model is that agricultural land use is formed as concentric circles around the central market; the latter consumes all the surplus production, which must be transported from the rural areas to the market.2

## Von Thünen Model: Strengths and Weaknesses

The model is often criticized for its many limitations, but it also has strengths.

### Strengths

The Von Thünen Model's main strength is its influence on agricultural, economic, and urban geography. The idea that space could be modeled with equations was revolutionary in its time. This led to many variations on the model based on different types of assumptions and conditions for both rural and urban areas.

Another strength is the idea that economic competition leaves patterns on the landscape. This is influential for land-use planning in agriculture.

### Weaknesses

The Von Thünen Model, even for its time, was quite abstract, mainly because the "isolated state" had no meaningful geographic differences within it. There were no rivers, mountains, climate differences, or soil types.

#### Outdated

The Von Thünen Model is based on an antiquated vision of transport and labor. In other words, it's outdated. The existence of railroads and highways and other transport corridors has changed many aspects of how products are taken to market and where markets have developed.

#### Lack of Social Components

Von Thünen advocated for a rational system based on motives of pure profit that he knew did not exist. That is to say, many factors in rural German society in the 1820s dictated against farmers operating solely to maximize profit. These included cultural, political, and economic components. The same is true today. In the modern world, these components include:

• Use of areas close to market centers for recreation rather than production
• Exclusion of certain farm products for cultural reasons (e.g., the Islamic prohibition of pork or the Hindu prohibition of beef)
• Government or private ownership of productive land for non-agricultural purposes (for a military base, park, and so forth)
• Security issues such as areas controlled by rebel groups
• Government price controls

And there are doubtless many others you can think of.

## Von Thünen Model Example

Despite these limitations, some of the basic patterns and processes exist today and can be traced in the landscape. They may exist as relics. If you drive across New Jersey, for example, you may still see remnants of the intensive farming/dairy von Thünen rings near New York and Philadelphia.

An example given by von Thünen himself involves rye.3 He calculated the maximum distance that rye could be grown from a city and still be profitable for the farmer.

Fig. 3 - Rye field in Germany

Many northern Germans depended upon rye as a source of food in the 1820s. They ate it themselves, they fed it to their oxen and horses—and sometimes, farmers even paid their laborers in rye rather than cash.

So when farmers transported rye to market, they were also transporting the energy source for the animals carrying it and maybe laborers' pay as well. You had to carry much more rye than just what you would sell. Beyond a certain distance, which turned out to be 138 miles (230km), rye wasn't grown. Why? Because beyond that, the rye left by the time the farmer reached the market would not be enough to cover his costs of getting it there.

## Von Thunen Model - Key takeaways

• .The model predicts where commercial agricultural uses for land will take place
• The model is based on a geographically homogeneous "isolated state" where farmers sell their products at a centrally-located market town and seek to gain the best prices for their products; the main factors are the cost of transportation and how long products can last before they are taken to market
• The concentric rings of production around the market town are: intensive farming/dairy; forests; grains; ranching; surrounding that is wilderness.
• The model was influential in geography but has many limitations, including a lack of consideration of political and cultural factors that affect economic competitiveness.

## References

1. von Thünen, J. H. 'Isolated State, An English Edition of Der Isolierte Staat.' Pergamon Press. 1966.
2. Poulopoulos, S., and V. Inglezakis, eds. 'Environment and development: basic principles, human activities, and environmental implications.' Elsevier. 2016.
3. Clark, C. 'Von Thunen's isolated state.' Oxford Economic Papers 19, no. 3, pp. 270-377. 1967.

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What is the Von Thunen Model?

The Von Thünen Model is a model of agricultural land use in commercial farming areas.

What is the Von Thunen Model based on?

The Von Thünen Model is based on land rent theory of David Ricardo and applied to agricultural landscapes in an abstract space called the "Isolated State."

What are the 4 rings of the Von Thunen Model?

The 4 rings, from inner to outer, are: intensive farming/dairy; forests; grain crops; ranching.

How is the Von Thunen Model used today?

The Von Thünen Model has been modified and applied to urban geography models; it is also used to a limited extent in rural land-use planning.

Why is the Von Thunen Model important?

The Von Thünen Model's importance lies in its application of economic principles and equations to geography, as it was the first model to do so. It has been extremely important in agricultural, economic, and urban geography both in its original form and in modifications.

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