Verdure: Turfgrass is not the largest irrigated crop

Data shows turf on golf courses isn't the biggest use of water.


In the classic movie, “The Princess Bride,” Inigo Montoya utters that unforgettable line: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This phrase should be applied to an often-misinterpreted statement from a journal publication by Cristina Milesi et al. in 2005. The article had good intentions by discussing turfgrass ecosystems as potential carbon sinks to mitigate climate change. The authors used geo-analysis methods and models to estimate the total land area of turfgrass in the U.S. to be about 40 million acres (16.2 million hectares).

Those with a not-so-friendly attitude toward turfgrass, lawns and golf courses often cite the Milesi article for this one statement: “The analysis indicates that turfgrasses, occupying 1.9% of the surface of the continental United States, would be the single largest irrigated crop in the country.” Look closely at that statement, and those two words “would be” assumes that if every square foot (or square meter) of turfgrass in the U.S. were irrigated, then turfgrass would be the largest irrigated crop in the U.S. Think about that: Every square foot (or square meter) of turfgrass as lawns, parks, athletic fields, golf courses, sod farms, roadsides, cemeteries, airports, commercial spaces and public spaces, and other various patches here, there and everywhere, is irrigated? Of course, every square foot of turfgrass in the U.S. is not irrigated. The truth is, turfgrass is not the largest irrigated crop in the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported 91.7 million acres (37.1 million hectares) were planted with corn (maize). So, if all that corn were irrigated, wouldn’t that be the single most irrigated crop in the U.S.?

What about golf courses? In the U.S., golf courses cover about 2.2 million acres (890,000 hectares) of land. While almost all golf courses utilize irrigation, about one-third of the total land at a golf course is not managed turf (i.e., lakes, forests, parking lots, buildings, etc.), and about 24% of the managed turf is not irrigated. So, how does the 1.1 million acres (445,000 hectares) of irrigated golf course turf compare to 12 million acres (4.9 million hectares) of corn that’s actually grown under irrigation, or a total of 58 million acres (23.5 million hectares) for all irrigated crops in the U.S.?

Although the Milesi article attempted to estimate total land area of turfgrass, there is not one comprehensive acreage and economic impact information source for the U.S. turfgrass industry. A proposal has recently been submitted to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service for funding to conduct a “National Turfgrass Industry Survey.” The goal is to determine the actual turfgrass land acreage and use, and to provide a better understanding of the size, scope and economic impact of turfgrass in the U.S.

The noble intention of the Milesi article was to show that turfgrass ecological communities represent opportunities for carbon sequestration. A possible criticism in the article points to the use of fertilizer and other turf management inputs that possibly offset the carbon sequestration benefits. However, the article does not consider best management practices (, nor does it recognize that many turf areas have little to no management inputs. To be fair, the Milesi article did not intend to be used as a source to support those with a negative opinion of turfgrass or the turfgrass industry.

So, let’s set the record straight: (1) turfgrass is not the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S.; (2) even if every square foot (or square meter) of turfgrass were irrigated, it would not be the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S. — that honor would go to corn; and (3) turfgrass represents so many positive benefits to the environment, society and the human race.

After reading this, Inigo Montoya can say, “You keep using that statement. I think you know what it means now.”

Source: Milesi, C., S.W. Running, et al. 2005. Mapping and modeling the biogeochemical cycling of turfgrasses in the United States. Environmental Management 36:426-438.

Thank you to Michael Richardson, Ph.D., professor, University of Arkansas, and Casey Reynolds, Ph.D., executive director, Turfgrass Producers International, for providing additional insight into this important topic.

Mike Fidanza, Ph.D., is a professor of plant and soil science in the Division of Science, Berks Campus, at Pennsylvania State University in Reading, Pa. He is a 20-year member of GCSAA.