Water and Soil Resources

Farmland Abandonment Research Progress: Influencing Factors and Simulation Model

  • SONG Wei , 1 ,
  • ZHANG Ying , 2, *
  • 1. Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. Chinese Academy of Surveying & Mapping, Beijing 100830, China;
*Corresponding author: ZHANG Ying, E-mail:

First author: SONG Wei, E-mail:

Received date: 2018-05-22

  Accepted date: 2018-12-08

  Online published: 2019-07-30

Supported by

National Natural Science Foundation of China (41501192)

The Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDA20040201)

Key Laboratory of Earth Observation and Geospatial Information Science of NASG (201807).


All rights reserved


Farmland abandonment is a global problem and considered one of the most important areas in land use change research. Farmland abandonment research currently focuses on understanding the factors that affect farmland abandonment and developing scientific models to simulate farmland abandonment. The study reviewed the natural and political factors driving farmland abandonment and summarized the main models for farmland abandonment simulation together with their advantages and disadvantages. We discuss the main ecological effects of farmland abandonment and propose farmland abandonment research directions. The study found that: (1) the influence of labor cost change and ageing labor force on farmland abandonment needs further investigation, (2) simulation models for farmland abandonment must include the decision-making mechanism of individual farmers and focus on macro large-scale abandonment prediction models, and (3) the influence of farmland abandonment on landscape culture must be investigated in detail.

Cite this article

SONG Wei , ZHANG Ying . Farmland Abandonment Research Progress: Influencing Factors and Simulation Model[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2019 , 10(4) : 345 -352 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764X.2019.04.001

1 Introduction

The farmland marginalization theory and differential land rent theory are generally form the theoretical frameworks in farmland abandonment research (Correia, 1993). Farmland marginalization refers to a significant reduction in profit or rental income from and use for agricultural purposes due to social, economic, political and environmental factors, and can be explained using the differential land rent theory. Since the same capital investment in the same area of land at different grades can generate different profits, the rent for land can also vary. Such differentiated land rent is called differential rent. Similarly, different land rents can be applied since different crops can generate different profits. However, a land parcel is generally abandoned if it cannot produce effective land rent for all cropping patterns using existing technology.
Due to rapid urbanization, a significant number of young people migrate to cities for better job opportunities, leading to farmland abandonment in rural areas. Consequently, farmland abandonment has become a global problem and requires significant research. Since the industrial revolution, large-scale forest recovery has been recorded in Europe (Baldock et al., 1996; Mather, 2004) primarily due to natural forest vegetation succession on abandoned agricultural land (Gellrich and Zimmermann, 2007; Gellrich et al., 2007a; Mather, 2004). The degree of farmland abandonment in Europe has been further aggravated since 1950 (Pointereau, 2008). Similarly, the Mediterranean region experiences significant farmland abandonment (Pointereau, 2008; Sluiter and de Jong, 2007; van Dijk et al., 2005) with more than 50% of land exhibiting characteristics of marginalization. Farmland abandonment in Europe is mainly in mountainous areas (Gellrich and Zimmermann, 2007; Gellrich et al., 2007a; Hatna and Bakker, 2011; Mottet et al., 2006; Sanz et al., 2013; Walther, 1986) in the south of France (Mather, 2004; Sanz et al., 2013), the west of Austria (Silber and Wytrzens, 2006), Switzerland (Gellrich and Zimmermann, 2007; Gellrich et al., 2007a; Walther, 1986), Italy (Correia, 1993), Spain (Correia, 1993) and Portugal (Beilin et al., 2014). Farmland abandonment has also occurred in parts of Northern Europe, Eastern Europe and South America (Kuemmerle, 2011; Prishchepov, 2013). For example, about a third of farmers gave up farming in Norway between 1999 and 2006 (Stokstad, 2010), while Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine in the Eastern Europe lost 20.7%, 13.9% and 13.3% of farmland, respectively, during political changes in the 1980s (Kuemmerle et al., 2011). Argentina and Chile have had different degrees of farmland abandonment (Diaz et al., 2011).
Farmland abandonment is frequently reported in China, especially in mountainous areas. Large farmland abandonment incidents have been recorded in all 25 provinces involved in the “grain for green” project, with the abandonment ratio varying between 5% and 30% for different provinces (Li et al., 2017). Around 12% of farmland was abandoned or idle according to a survey conducted by the Chinese Household Finance Survey and Research Center in 80 counties across 25 provinces in 2011 (Li et al., 2014). Another survey found that the farmland abandonment ratio in mountainous areas in China was 14.32% (Li et al., 2017). Thus, farmland abandonment is not an isolated incident, rather a common phenomenon. Since China had 135 million hectares of farmland area in 2016, farmland abandonment will have a huge impact on Chinese economic and social development.
The reasons for farmland abandonment vary between countries. In Western countries, the ecological effect is the primary reason for farmland abandonment. In contrast, significant farmland abandonment in China can affect China's grain production and threaten food security due to its large population and limited farmland resources. Therefore, the Chinese government has issued a series of notices to dictate food production restoration on abandoned farmland as soon as possible. In this context, it is critical to forecast the future tendency of farmland abandonment and assess the potential ecological effects of farmland abandonment. It is important to develop farmland abandonment simulations and prediction models based on corresponding influential factors to assess scientifically the potential effects of farmland abandonment.

2 Factors driving farmland abandonment

The factors influencing farmland abandonment can be divided into natural geographical factors, socioeconomic and demographic factors, and policy factors. They are discussed in detail below.

2.1 Natural geographical factors

According to farmland marginalization and differential land rent theories, farmland abandonment tends to occur in remote mountainous areas with poor soil conditions. The results of farmland marginalization and no-rent-income are the more extensive land use patterns or even direct abandonment of farmland. Typical cases of farmland abandonment and the accompanied natural forest restoration and expansion can be found in Europe, the Mediterranean region, the Amazon, China and other countries or regions (Huang and Liu, 2010; Keenleyside et al., 2010; Laue and Arima, 2016; Liu and Li, 2006; MacDonald et al., 2000; Renwick et al., 2013; Sanz et al., 2013; Shao et al., 2015; Strijker, 2005; Xie et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2014a). The difficulty of farming in a marginalized land together with low output can result in high operational costs and low benefits (Morera and Gladwin, 2006).
Past studies have found that land abandonment is common in regions with higher altitude, steeper slope, poor soil conditions, bad field facilities and inconvenient traffics, as well as fragmentized land parcels far from residential areas (Baldock et al., 1996; Diaz et al., 2011; Mottet et al., 2006; Pointereau, 2008; Shao et al., 2015; Sluiter and de Jong, 2007; Xie et al., 2014). However, these factors differ between regions and multiple factors influence farmland abandonment in a certain region. For example, farmland abandonment in Eastern Europe is dominated by the remote distance of mountainous areas, whereas poor soil conditions are the primarily reason in Western Europe (Baldock et al., 1996; van Dijk et al., 2005; Xie et al., 2014).
Due to the combination of various factors such as poor soil conditions, steep slope, high altitude, remote location and land fragmentation, farmland abandonment is often prevalent in mountainous areas. Consequently, studies on farmland abandonment have mainly concentrated on the Alps of the Mediterranean region, mountainous areas crossed by the Pyrenean in France, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Italy, mountainous areas in southwest China, and mountainous areas in Chile (Diaz et al., 2011; Gellrich, 2006; Gellrich and Zimmermann, 2007; Kristensen et al., 2004; MacDonald et al., 2000; Mottet et al., 2006; Sanz et al., 2013; Shao et al., 2015; Sikor et al., 2009; Tan et al., 2006; Walther, 1986; Zhang et al., 2014a). However, some researchers have criticized the marginalization theory of farmland abandonment. Hatna and Bakker (2011) conducted an empirical study and found that much farmland abandonment occurred in farmland near highways, questioning the validity of the marginal farmland abandonment hypothesis. Nevertheless, farmland abandonment in the land with good natural conditions and good traffic conditions may still be a no-rent-income phenomenon of agricultural cultivation, which is caused by other reasons. The research of Hatna and Bakker (2011) only indicates that the hypothesis of “marginal land exits out from agricultural production first” is conditional.

2.2 Socioeconomic and demographic factors

Restriction of capital investment and income is the most important socioeconomic and demographic factor affecting farmland abandonment. The change in the relative price of inputs and outputs is an important mechanism of land use change, and several studies found that low agricultural income is an important factor for farmers giving up agricultural cultivation (Ge et al., 2012; Ma, 2010; Strijker, 2005; Tan, 2001, 2004). In addition, capital restriction also leads to farmland abandonment in some areas (Kuki and Takahashi, 1999).
The agricultural labor force switching to non-agricultural professions is an important factor responsible for farmland abandonment. With economic development, urban development and non-agricultural industries provide a large number of high-income job opportunities, leading to a significant decrease in agricultural labor. Consequently, small farms gradually merge with large farms and barren land is abandoned. Some studies have found that farmland abandonment in European mountainous areas is closely related to the migration of a large number of rural populations (Gellrich, 2006; Jokisch, 2002; Sanz et al., 2013). As the population continues to decline, farmland abandonment in Europe will continue (Prishchepov et al., 2011). Additionally, the cost of agricultural labor force also increases due to the unavailability of adequate employees due to migration, leading to increased operational costs and the subsequent abandonment of farmland (Strijker, 2005). Farmland abandonment in China is closely related to increases in labor cost and migration of the agricultural labor force (Cao et al., 2008; Chen et al., 2009; Duan et al., 2007; Hao, 2011; Hu and Wang, 2013; Li et al., 2017; Tian et al., 2010; Yan et al., 2010; Zhang et al., 2018).
Non-agricultural employment opportunities change the age characteristics of the agricultural labor force. The probability of farmland abandonment among the part-time farmers and older farmers is significantly higher than for pure farmers (Hao, 2011; Kristensen et al., 2004; Sanz et al., 2013; Tian et al., 2009, 2010). The socioeconomic factors for farmland abandonment vary between regions, for example, age structure and educational degree of agricultural labor force cannot explain farmland abandonment in southern Chile (Diaz et al., 2011).
The management structure of peasant households also influences farmland abandonment. Households with a large number of livestock such as cattle and sheep can operate more steadily, and are less likely to abandon farmland (Diaz et al., 2011). Farmers with a large farm area for livestock and dairy cattle breeding are more willing to operate farmland continuously (Stokstad, 2010).
Nevertheless, Grau and Aide (2007) argued that the migration of the rural labor force does not have any negative effects on mountainous agriculture; instead it can promote the sustainable development of mountainous areas. Migrant workers can contribute financially towards developing agricultural production and improving the land productivity by increasing investment in fertilizers and pesticides, resulting in a reduction in land marginalization.

2.3 Policy factors

Credit mechanisms, agricultural subsidies and land protection policies generally reduce farmland abandonment (Morera and Gladwin, 2006). For example, Europe introduced the LFA (Less Favored Areas) subsidy policies for farmers in regions with bad natural environments, which had a positive impact on preventing farmland abandonment. In contrast, the cancellation of agricultural subsidies was considered a key reason for the large farmland abandonment after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Prishchepov et al., 2013). Some studies show that agricultural subsidy policies may not effectively increase investment in the agricultural system or eliminate farmland abandonment (Chen et al., 2009; Renwick et al., 2013). It is important to note that agricultural subsidies in marginalized regions may lead to excessive exploration of farmland and cause various eco-environmental problems such as land degradation (Caraveli, 2000).

2.4 Contributions of different influencing factors on farmland abandonment

In general, farmland abandonment is the result of natural geographical factors, socioeconomic and demographic factors and policy factors. The determinant factors influencing farmland abandonment vary in different regions. By virtue of some econometric models, researchers have reported the contributions of different influencing factors on farmland abandonment.
Using a logistic regression model, Zhang et al. (2014b) found that irrigation condition is the most influential factor in farmland abandonment, followed by traffic condition, agricultural machinery, land quality, pest and disease damage, price of grain purchase, drought, farm size and the number of farming. It can be seen that agricultural production conditions are the determinant factors influencing farmland abandonment in this region. However, by virtue of the same method, Lei et al. (2016) found that the degree of fragmentation and location condition have larger influences on farmland abandonment compared to labor features, income and grain yield. Differences in topographic condition of the two study areas could result in different conclusions. The study area of the former research is plain region while that of the latter is hilly region.
Household questionnaires is a direct way to identify the contributions of household factors on land abandonment. A survey from Changding county in Fujian province in China (Hu and Wang, 2013) found that 33.33% of farmland abandonment is attributed to the inconvenience of farming, 27.78% to poor farming income, 16.67% to a lack of farm labor, 11.11% to inconvenience of irrigation and drainage, 5.56% to wild animals damage and 5.55% to other factors. Zhang et al. (2014b) developed a multi-level model to identify determinants of farmland abandonment and found that 80% of variance of farmland abandonment can be explained by parcel, 7% by household level and 13% by village level. This means that the natural geographical factors including slope, soil quality and distance to residence are dominant factors influencing farmland abandonment.
We can conclude that the socioeconomic conditions of farmers determine farmland abandonment risk. However, whether it will be finally abandoned depends on the parcel features of farmland. Compared to natural geographical conditions and socioeconomic and demographic factors, policy factors have only slight effects on farmland abandonment.

3 Simulation and prediction of farmland abandonment

The purpose of determining factors driving farmland abandonment is to develop simulation and prediction models to evaluate the potential scale of future farmland abandonment and map the risk of future farmland abandonment. In general, simulation and prediction models can be divided into two categories (Table 1). The spatial statistical/quantitative analysis models are generally based on regression analysis to develop a spatial risk probability of farmland abandonment (Gellrich and Zimmermann, 2007; Pointereau, 2008; Sanz et al., 2013; Silber and Wytrzens, 2006), and is not suitable for estimating the scale of the future abandoned farmland. In addition, these methods are dependent on the selection of indicative factors, and highly regionally correlated with indicative factors (Keenleyside et al., 2010).
Table 1 Main models for the simulation and prediction of farmland abandonment
Model category Model name Applied regions Quantitative
Spatial distribution/
Abandonment risk
Reference sources
Spatial statistical/
quantitative models
Logit model of probability South Chile + Díaz et al., 2011
Spatial statistical model Switzerland
mountainous areas
+ Gellrich and
Zimmermann, 2007
PROBAT + Silber and
Wytrzens, 2006
Spatial statistical model Switzerland
mountainous areas
+ Gellrich et al.,
Logistic regression model and
Area Under Curve statistics
Slovakia + Pazur et al., 2014
Multivariate statistical models Switzerland mountainous areas + Gellrich et al., 2007a
System dynamics
Dyna-CLUE Switzerland + + Price et al., 2015
FORE-SCE Pyrenees + + Vacquie et al., 2015
CAPRI and Dyna-CLUE European Union + + Renwick et al., 2013

Note: “+” and “‒” indicate whether the model has a specific function or not, respectively.

System dynamics models are the second type of simulation and prediction model used in farmland abandonment research. These models mainly resort to the existing simulation models for land use change such as Dyna-CLUE, FORE-SCE and CAPRI (Table 1). With the aid of these land use change models, the farmland abandonment possibility and spatial distribution under different scenarios (Strijker, 2005) or the impacts of various policies on farmland abandonment (Renwick et al., 2013) can be simulated. It should be noted that these models mainly define farmland abandonment as the transfer to forest land or grass land, which is different from the definition by the marginal theory. Especially in China, the transfer from farmland to forestland or grassland is significantly affected by ecological policy of returning farmland to forest. Hence, using system dynamics models to simulate farmland abandonment in China has limitations.
The simulation models used in past studies are mainly multi-factor regression models, or recur to some land use change simulation models to conduct spatial evaluation on the probability of abandonment risk. However, simulation analysis from the perspectives of farmland abandonment mechanisms and land use decision-making by farmers is limited despite the farmers being the main decision makers of farmland abandonment. During the past several decades, variation in geographical factors influencing farmland abandonment is insignificant, while variation in socioeconomic conditions of farmers, especially labor force migration, is significant. Nevertheless, the existing spatial statistical/quantitative models or the system dynamics models can hardly reflect farmers’ decision-making processes for land use, especially for farmland abandonment variation caused by future labor migration.
Due to the lack of simulation and prediction models for peasant household farmland abandonment mechanisms and
large-scale macroscopic farmland abandonment, the simulation and prediction results of existing models contain significant uncertainty. For example, simulation of the farmland abandonment in Europe confirmed that the farmland abandonment ratio was likely to increase over the next 20 to 30 years, though researchers disagree on the predicted abandonment ratio i.e. from 0.7% in 2020 to 6.7% in 2030. Keenleyside et al. (2010) even predicted that 19.8%‒28.1% of farmland would be abandoned by 2030 in Europe.

4 Discussion

4.1 Eco-environmental effects of farmland abandonment

According to the forest transition theory, farmland abandonment provides a good opportunity for the restoration of ecosystems, especially forestry ecosystem, and forest expansion on abandoned farmland is an important way of forest transition (Mather, 2004; Rudel et al., 2005, 2010). From the perspective of ecological functions, the eco-environmental effects of farmland abandonment are mainly about the impacts on biodiversity, wildfire occurrence, carbon sequestration, and soil erosion. The variation trend and degree of ecological functions caused by the farmland abandonment are different in different regions.
Abandoned farmland in Switzerland is mainly distributed in mountainous areas with high nature value, which are the natural habitats of exotic birds, and farmland abandonment threatens the survival of certain birds, resulting in a decline in biodiversity (Gellrich et al., 2007a). In contrast, the restoration of forest and natural vegetation due to farmland abandonment in some areas produces a more complex ecological system leading to increases in biodiversity (Beilin et al., 2014). Some studies argue that farmland abandonment and forest restoration have no effects on biodiversity (Rudel et al., 2005) or degrade biodiversity due to the reduction of artificial biological species near farms and farmers’ residences relative to species during agricultural cultivation.
Studies differ on the influence of farmland abandonment on soil erosion. Most studies suggest that farmland abandonment has a positive impact on suppressing soil erosion since soil interference is reduced after farmland is abandoned, while vegetation restoration can curb soil erosion and improve ecological environment (Renwick et al., 2013). Nevertheless, some studies suggest that farmland abandonment can increase land degradation caused by soil erosion (Harden, 1996; Tarolli et al., 2014) since the absence of maintenance for original terraces causes a collapse of terrace ridges and gully headward erosion, though it generally occurs only in the first few years of farmland abandonment. It is generally agreed that farmland abandonment and vegetation restoration can significantly increase vegetation carbon sequestration (Kuemmerle, 2011; Rudel et al., 2010), though the frequency of wildfire may also increase (Ursino et al., 2014).
In China, research on the ecological effects of farmland abandonment has mainly focused on the Loess Plateau, and mostly on the microscopic scale. The fixed-point monitoring test is the common method used to study the ecological effects of farmland abandonment and the influence of farmland abandonment on vegetation succession (Zhang et al., 2008), soil physical structure (An et al., 2008; Dai et al., 2008), nutrient composition (Li et al., 2010), biomass (Du et al., 2007; Xue et al., 2009), and moisture effect (Du et al., 2005; Luo et al., 2003).

4.2 Outlook of farmland abandonment research

Socioeconomic conditions significantly vary in the short-term compared to the natural environment. Hence, socioeconomic factors, especially labor force migration, are expected to play a greater role in future farmland abandonment. However, existing conventional simulation methods for farmland abandonment such as multi-factor regression and land use change simulation can hardly reflect the role of labor force migration in farmland abandonment. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a decision-making model for farmland abandonment based on the characteristics of the individual peasant household. In the decision-making model, special attention should be given to the influence of labor costs and ageing effects on farmland abandonment.
Large-scale macroscopic simulation and prediction models for farmland abandonment are needed urgently. However, only limited studies have focused on this aspect. For example, at the macroscopic scale, the driving mechanism for farmland abandonment will present big differences under the influence of geographical factors, whereas large-scale macroscopic models for farmland abandonment may obliterate these regional differences and thus bring great uncertainty to simulation results. However, macroscopic simulation models for farmland abandonment are not available yet, and require an in-depth discussion about the modelling approach such quantitative models or mechanism models.
Current research mainly focused on the effects of farmland abandonment on food production and the micro-ecological environment. However, farmland abandonment may also have impacts on landscape ecology and cultural values. For example, special cultivation methods with significant cultural value (e.g. terraced landscape in Loudi, Hunan province, China) gradually disappear because of the influence of farmland abandonment, producing a series of social and economic consequences. At present, this aspect has been investigated in Europe, while such research initiatives have not begun in China.

5 Conclusions

China is experiencing a rapid land use transition. In the foreseeable future, farmland abandonment in China could became a common phenomenon. For a large population and limited land resources, farmland abandonment will generate profound effects on grain production and the ecological environment.
Natural geographical conditions, socioeconomic factors and policy factors are the three main kinds of influence factors for farmland abandonment. The determinant factors of farmland abandonment change according to different regions. Nevertheless, as a whole, socioeconomic conditions of farmers determine the risk of farmland abandonment and parcel features of farmland determine the final probability of land abandonment. Policy factors have less effects on farmland abandonment compared to natural and socioeconomic factors in the current situation. Among these natural, socioeconomic and policy factors, number of farming labors, land quality of parcels and food subsidy are the three most important factors influencing land abandonment. For simulations, econometric model and system dynamics model are the most two popular kinds of simulation models. However, for the lack of mechanism model and large-scale macroscopic model, the simulation of farmland abandonment has a lot of uncertainties.
In the future, three dimensions of research should be strengthened. First, it is necessary to give priority to develop the mechanism model and large-scale macroscopic model of farmland abandonment. Second, labor factors and grain subsidy policy should be considered when analyzing the influence factors of farmland abandonment. Last, the landscape culture effects of farmland abandonment should be investigated in detail.
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