Understanding the Farm Bill: Who is the Average Family Farmer?

In my last Farm Bill post, I said something I’m not exactly proud of -- three little words that felt so simple and good as they tumbled out of my fingertips and onto the page: average family farmer.

If you’re interested in agriculture and the local food movement, “family farmers” are people you hear (and perhaps think) a lot about. For the most part, in campaigns to preserve the family farm, the term is intentionally vague but unambiguously positive. For me, family farm calls to mind a scene out of a Grant Wood painting – rolling pastures, a red barn, and Ma in the kitchen fixing “a little lunch.” But this idyllic vision of a small-scale, diversified farm isn’t necessarily the reality. In considering how agriculture policy impacts producers and consumers alike, it’s important to take a look at the farm landscape: who are our farmers, and is there any such thing as an average family farm?

There’s actually a legal definition of family farm that’s used by the government to determine loan eligibility, and the USDA defines and organizes farms for its statistics and reports. According to USDA, a farm is any place that produces and sells at least $1,000 of agricultural products in a given year. The USDA has three broad categories of farms: small family farms (with annual sales of less than $250,000), large-scale family farms (with sales of $250,000 or more), and nonfamily farms. Nonfamily farms include farms operated by corporations, owned by unrelated business partners, or operated by a hired farm manager for absentee landowners.

The 2010 Family Farm Report, put out by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, provides a useful and sometimes surprising overview of US farm statistics. Of the nearly 2.2 million farms in the US, small family farms make up 88 percent of farms, large family farms are just over 9 percent of farms, and nonfamily farms account for only 2.4 percent of farms. So where are the industrial farms we hear so much about? A closer look at these data tells a different story. The small family farms category includes farms that gross between $1,000 and $250,000 annually – hardly all small farms. The category is further divided into retirement, residential/lifestyle, and farming-occupation farms. Retirement and lifestyle farmers (72 percent of small farms) report their main occupation as something other than farming, and clearly rely on other sources of income to make a living. Small farming-occupation farms are divided into low sales (less than $100,000 annually) and medium-sales (between $100,000 and $250,000) farms; the bulk of these are low-sales.

While large and nonfamily farms make up less than 12 percent of US farms, they account for 84 percent of production; the nonfamily farms alone account for 18 percent of production (production is measured as the value of commodities produced). Certain types of farms produce more of certain commodities. For example, small farms produce 23 percent of grains and soybeans, 51 percent of hay, and 22 percent of beef, but only 5 percent of hogs and 3 percent of poultry (which reflects the structure of those industries).

Not surprisingly, large and nonfamily farms are larger than small farms in area as well as in production and income. The median size of a residential/lifestyle farm is 58 acres, while the median medium-sales farming-occupation small farm is 414 acres, and the median very large family farm is over 1,000 acres. The trend toward larger farms has continued in recent years. However, 63 percent of farmland is owned by small farmers. This means that small farmers are important in protecting the land and environmental quality, and indeed small farms account for 76 percent of land enrolled in CRP. Also not surprisingly, large farms receive more commodity payments. Seventy-six percent of commodity program payments go to family farms with $100,000 or more in sales, which is roughly proportional to their production of commodity program crops.

Since there are so many different types of farms, the policies in the Farm Bill affect each of them differently. Medium and large family farms are more likely to participate in commodity and working lands conservation programs such as CSP, while smaller farms are more likely to participate in land retirement programs like CRP. Farming is still a family enterprise, but the shape of these farms has changed. With all the conversation surrounding small family farms, it’s good to keep in mind what that might mean.


  • Robert A. Hoppe, David E. Banker, and James M. MacDonald. America's Diverse Family Farms, 2010 Edition. USDA Economic Research Service. July 2010.
  • Robert A. Hoppe and David E. Banker. Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2010 Edition. USDA Economic Research Service. July 2010.

Ann Butkowski is happy to be back in her native Minnesota after spending the last two years in Boston. She’s learning to bike the streets of Minneapolis and grow tomatoes in her backyard. Ann has a master’s degree in nutrition science, but doesn’t let that stop her from eating ice cream right out of the carton. Ann is Simple, Good, and Tasty's resident Farm Bill expert. Her most recent post for us was Understanding the Farm Bill: Who Benefits from the Current Commodity Programs?.