Typical family farm? It’s complicated

(Farm and Dairy file photo)

By Susan Crowell / editor@farmanddairy.com

Most of us in agriculture know this, but it’s good to be reminded of it, and to remind our non-farm friends, too: Ninety-nine percent of U.S. farms are family farms.

Those farms are all shapes and sizes, but they’re still family farms, and they account for 90 percent of the country’s farm production.

According to a new report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service (link opens .pdf), nonfamily farms (24,992 farms) make up only 1.2 percent of U.S. farms.

I don’t think the American public realizes that, and it’s an important fact, especially as we’re in the middle of the next farm bill debate, and legislators and lobbyists craft farm programs that impact everyone who eats.

Family farms are small, large and everywhere in between, and their farm business structure can be simple or complicated. The owner-operators can be a couple, or they can be a large, extended, multi-generational family.

If you say you support family farms, but slam farms over a certain size, you’re hypocritical — you can’t have it both ways. You may support a certain farm production practice or size, but if you support family farmers, you get the whole fam-damily. (Does anyone else use that phrase?) How can a farm support a second generation or two siblings’ growing families if it stays the same size or doesn’t diversify? Answer: It can’t.

But the report also highlighted the realities of farm size related to U.S. farms:

  • Small family farms (gross cash farm income of less than $350,000) make up nearly 90 percent of U.S. farms. (Remember, the USDA defines a farm as a place where at least $1,000 of agricultural products are produced and sold in a given year.)
  • Of those small family farms, nearly 42 percent of the owners say they have a major occupation other than farming, according to the ERS report.
  • Retirement farms (the operator says he’s retired, but still farming) make up another 17.9 percent of the total.
  • In terms of farm production, large-scale family farms (gross cash farm income of $1 million or more) accounted for the largest share of production, at 45 percent.

The report reports another reality we all know: More than a third (38 percent) of farm households had income less than the median for all U.S. households in 2016, which was $57,617. (A statistical reminder that “median” is not the average, but is the point that divides the income distribution into halves — one-half has income above the median and the other with income below the median.)

The report also reflected the adage that farmers are “land rich and cash poor,” as farm real estate accounts for about 81 percent of the assets of family farms.

  • • •

All of this information sets the stage for an important plug for the U.S. Ag Census: If you farm, you should have already received the 2017 Census of Agriculture form in the mail. Please don’t pitch it or dismiss it. The census, conducted only once every five years, counts all U.S. farms and those who operate them.

As the USDA reminds us, “it is the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and impartial agriculture data for every state and county in the country.” It’s a big deal, and the resulting data is used to make a lot of decisions that affect your farm.

Hate to fill out paper forms? You can also complete the census form online; just visit www.agcensus.usda.gov. The deadline for either response is Feb. 5. Grab some eggnog and get busy.



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