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 German farmer, landowner, and amateur economist Johann Heinrich Von Thunen (1783–1850). He presented it in 1826 in a book called "The Isolated State," but it wasn't translated into English until 1966.

Von Thunen created his model before industrialization and in it, he laid the foundation for what we know as the field of human geography. He strove to identify trends of people's economic relationship with the landscape surrounding them.

What Is the Von Thunen Model?

The Von Thunen model is a theory which, after Von Thunen's own observations and very meticulous mathematical calculations, predicts human behavior in terms of landscape and economy.

Like any other scientific experiment or theory, it is based on a series of assumptions, that Von Thunen sums up in his concept of an "Isolated State." Von Thunen was interested in ways people tend to use and would use the land around a city if the conditions were laboratory-like, as in his Isolated State.

His premise is that if people have the freedom to organize the landscape around their cities as they wish, they will naturally set up their economy—growing and selling crops, livestock, timber, and produce— into what Von Thunen identified as "Four Rings."

Isolated State

The following are the conditions Von Thunen noted as the basis for his model. These are laboratory-style conditions and don't necessarily exist in the real world. But they are a workable basis for his agricultural theory, which seemed to reflect how people actually organized their world and how some modern agricultural regions are still laid out.

  • 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.

The Four Rings

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. 

  1. 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, in the 19th century, people didn't have refrigerated oxcarts that would enable them to travel larger distances.) The first ring of land is also more expensive, so the agricultural products from that area would have to be highly valuable ones and the rate of return maximized.
  2. Timber and firewood: These 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, and thus comes in second in value after dairy and produce. Wood is also very heavy and difficult to transport, so it is located as close to the city as possible to minimize additional transportation costs.
  3. Crops: 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 wood, reducing transport costs, they can be located farther from the city.
  4. Livestock: Ranching is located in the final ring surrounding the central city. Animals can be raised far from the city because they are self-transporting—they 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. It 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 the market. Of course, in the real world, things don't happen as they would in a model, but Von Thunen's model gives us a good base to work from.