Learn About the Von Thunen Model

A Model of Agricultural Land Use

Von Thunen Statue
Miriam Guterland / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Von Thunen model of agricultural land use (also called location theory) was created by the farmer, landowner, and amateur economist Johann Heinrich Von Thunen (1783–1850) in 1826 in a book called "The Isolated State," but it wasn't translated into English until 1966. Von Thunen's model was created before industrialization and is based on the following limiting assumptions:

  • The city is located centrally within an "Isolated State" that is self-sufficient and has no external influences.
  • The Isolated State is surrounded by an unoccupied wilderness.
  • The land of the State is completely flat and has no rivers or mountains to interrupt the terrain.
  • The soil quality and climate are consistent throughout the State.
  • Farmers in the Isolated State transport their own goods to market via oxcart, across the land, directly to the central city. Therefore, there are no roads.
  • Farmers act to maximize profits.

In an Isolated State with the foregoing statements being true, Von Thunen hypothesized that a pattern of rings around the city would develop based on land cost and transportation cost. 

The Four Rings

Dairying and intensive farming occur in the ring closest to the city. Because vegetables, fruit, milk, and other dairy products must get to market quickly, they would be produced close to the city. (Remember, people didn't have refrigerated oxcarts!) The first ring of land is also more expensive, so the ag products would have to be highly valuable ones and the rate of return maximized.

Timber and firewood would be produced for fuel and building materials in the second zone. Before industrialization (and coal power), wood was a very important fuel for heating and cooking. Wood is very heavy and difficult to transport, so it is located as close to the city as possible.

The third zone consists of extensive field crops such as grains for bread. Because grains last longer than dairy products and are much lighter than fuel, reducing transport costs, they can be located farther from the city.

Ranching is located in the final ring surrounding the central city. Animals can be raised far from the city because they are self-transporting. Animals can walk to the central city for sale or for butchering.

Beyond the fourth ring lies the unoccupied wilderness, which is too great a distance from the central city for any type of agricultural product because the amount earned for the product doesn't justify the expenses of producing it after transportation to the city is factored in.

What the Model Can Tell Us

Even though the Von Thunen model was created in a time before factories, highways, and even railroads, it is still an important model in geography. The Von Thunen model is an excellent illustration of the balance between land cost and transportation costs. As one gets closer to a city, the price of land increases. The farmers of the Isolated State balance the cost of transportation, land, and profit and produce the most cost-effective product for market. Of course, in the real world, things don't happen as they would in a model.