The facts about family farms

Article was written by Leigh Presley, Agriculture Extension Educator. 
Originally published in the Kenosha News.

Behind every farm field, barn full of cows, orchard of trees, or silo filled with grain is a business — each unique in its ownership, structure and sources of income.

These characteristics aren’t easy to decipher while driving down a country road, so it’s easy to make assumptions about who owns and operates American farmland.

We hear a lot about huge corporate farms taking over, absentee landowners getting big government farm program payouts and family farms disappearing.

Without the facts or firsthand knowledge, sorting perception from the truth can be difficult.

To help shed some light, the USDA Economic Research Service recently released the 2019 edition of America’s Diverse Family Farms.

A few key takeaways from this bulletin highlight the diversity of operations driving American agriculture.

Family farms rule

Farming is still overwhelmingly comprised of family businesses.

Ninety-eight percent of U.S. farms are family-owned, and they account for a majority of U.S. farm production.

About 90 percent of family farms are operated as sole proprietorships owned by a single individual or family. These farms account for about 61 percent of total farm production.

Two percent of farms are considered non-family, and account for 12 percent of production. These operations include partnerships between two unrelated families, farms with a hired producer, and relatively few private and publicly-held corporations.

Abundant small farms

Ninety percent of the country’s farms are small family farms. These might be owned by retired farmers who still farm a bit, hobby farms, or commercial farms that have a gross cash farm income (GCFI) of less than $350,000. These small farms operate about 48 percent of farmland and account for 21 percent of production.

Small farms produce 56 percent of the country’s poultry and eggs and 50 percent of our hay.

Large family farms

Large-scale family farms account for the largest share of production:

Only 2.7 percent of farms are considered large scale (with a GCFI of $1,000,000+), but they account for 46 percent of total farm production and over two-thirds of dairy production.

Farm programs

Government farm programs benefit a variety of farms.

Programs that help cover costs of implementing environmentally friendly practices like cover crops and erosion control on working farms are about equally distributed among small-, medium- and large-scale farms.

A majority of commodity, conservation and insurance program payments go to the smaller numbers of mid- and large-scale family farms that produce and operate large proportions of the products and land supported by the programs.

Seventy-one percent of all farms (representing 71 percent of farmland) received no farm-related government payments in 2018.

Off-farm income

Off-farm income is important to many farms.

In the past, farm income typically supported an entire family. Today, more farms rely on off-farm employment to cover both household and farm expenses. According to the report, 45 percent of all principal operators work off the farm.

Forty-five percent of the spouses of principal farm operators have jobs off the farm, with most citing health care benefits as the primary reason for doing so.

To find out more about the status of America’s family farms, find the report referenced in this article at

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