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father working with children on farm, courtesy of Adobe Stock

The vast majority of farms and ranches in the United States are family owned and operated. USDA classifies family farms as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation. Family farms exclude farms organized as nonfamily corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms with hired managers”.

Under this definition, the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Census of Agriculture reported that family farms account for almost 96 percent of the 2,204,792 farms in the United States.

The census makes the following useful distinctions among these family farms, based initially on their gross annual sales:

  • Very large family farms (101,265) gross over $500,000
  • Large family farms (86,551) gross between $250,000 and $500,000
  • Small family farms (1,925,799) gross under $250,000

Many people are surprised that farms are classified as small, large, and very large based on their annual sales rather than on their physical size. While a size-based measure seems intuitive, farm acreage can mean very different things in different places. An acre of non-irrigated land in a low rainfall area, such as southern Utah, is hard to compare to an acre of very fertile, high rainfall land in the Pelouse region of eastern Washington.

Most of the U.S. domestic production of food and fiber comes from relatively few large operations. Large and very large family farms produce over 63 percent of the value of all products sold, while non-family farms produce approximately 21 percent, and the nearly 2 million small farms and ranches (sales under $250,000) produce approximately 15 percent.

Several, inter-related issues must be considered when discussing the long-term viability of the nation’s family farms. An estimated 70 percent of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next 20 years, but many family operations do not have a next generation skilled in or willing to continue farming. If a farm or ranch family has not adequately planned for succession, it is likely to go out of business, be absorbed into ever-larger farming neighbors, or be converted to non-farm uses.

On the positive side, the increasing popularity of local produce and direct or regional marketing is often seen as an important new opportunity for small and beginning farmers and ranchers to become financially secure. After decades of decline the number of family farms has grown by about 4 percent.


Farm bill priority areas
Agriculture economics and rural communities

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