Corn to be wild: Love for the grain spreads beyond the Heartland

US corn acreage remains concentrated in the Midwest, but its use as input for food and fuel has widened its appeal among states. Our interactive maps take stock of maize democratization since the start of the millennium.


Corn is the primary feed grain in the US – by a wide margin. Taken together, alternatives such as sorghum, barley and oats represent less than 4 percent of feed grain output. Production remains concentrated in the Heartland, a contiguous group of Midwestern states that have dominated production for decades. The region’s vast acreage has made the country one of the world’s prominent corn powers: the US accounts for between 10 percent and 20 percent of global exports of the grain every year.

The crop is grown in most US states. But Iowa and Illinois, the top two producing ones, account for about one-third of yearly harvests. Yet the market has seen changes elsewhere. Acreage has boomed since 1983, when legislation was passed allowing farmers to make planting decisions based on a crop’s profitability during a given year. That has mostly benefitted large farms: their numbers have risen, while the tally of small farms has consistently declined. Over time, corn has seized ever more market share, taking over land from pasture, soybean and more.

This owes a lot to elevated corn prices, which have been pushed upwards by the rise of ethanol demand. Human consumption and industrial usages have also grown in recent years: these two are now responsible for one-third of domestic use. This has been partly driven by the expanding Latin American population in the US, for whom corn is a staple of their daily diet. This has resulted in non-traditional corn states picking up the grain as one of their important crops – a shift made easier in the north by the development of short-season hybrid varieties.