How America’s Most Useless Crop Also Became Its Most Commonly Grown One

How America’s Most Useless Crop Also Became Its Most Commonly Grown One

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.

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