Focus on Ag: USDA overview of today's US farm operations

Kent Thiesse
Farm Management Analyst and Vice President, MinnStar Bank

Ask 10 people to describe a “family farm” and you will probably get 10 different definitions.

Some will likely be similar to each other, and some will be totally different. How a “family farm” is defined probably is a big guide toward people’s attitudes about today’s U.S. agriculture industry.

In December of 2020, the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) issued a report titled “America’s Diverse Family Farms”, which was based on U.S. farm data from 2019 and offered some definitions of different types of farms. Following is a brief summary of some of the data highlighted in the ERS report that is being shared in recognition of National Ag Week, which is Mar. 21-27.

The USDA ERS definition for a “family farm” is the following: “Any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the principal operator and individuals related to the principal operator, who are the persons most responsible for making the day-to-day decisions on the farm”.

USDA further defines a farm as any place that at least $1,000 of agricultural products are produced and sold in a given year or are normally produced during a year. The ERS measures farm size by the gross cash farm income (GCFI), which includes sales of crops and livestock, government payments, and other farm-related income.

Based on the 2020 ERS report, there were just over 2 million farms in the U.S., with just under 90% of the farms being categorized as “small family farms.”

Following is a breakdown of the criteria that ERS used to categorize U.S. farms, along with the number and percentage of farms in each category:

Small Family Farms:

  • less than $350,000 GCFI

Retirement Farms:

  • Small farms whose principal operator are retired, but they continue to operate a farm on a small scale. There were 215,959 farms or 10.7% of the total farms in this category.

Off-Farm Occupation Farms:

  • Small farms whose principal operator reports a primary occupation other than farming. There were 833,450 farms or 41.4% of the total farms in this category.

Farming Occupation Farms:

  • Small farms whose principal operators report farming as their primary occupation. There are two sales classes listed under this category:

Low Sales:

  • Farms with a GCFI of less than $150,000. There were 653,716 farms or 32.4% of the total farms in this category.

Moderate Sales:

  • Farms with a GCFI of between $150,000 and $349,999. There were 103,058 farms or 5.1% of the total farms in this category.

Midsize Family Farms:

  • GCFI between $350,00 and $999,999. There were 107,316 family farms or 5.3% of the total farms in this category.

Large-Scale Family Farms:

  • GCFI of $1 million or more.

Large Farms:

  • Family farms with a GCFI of between $1 million and $4,999,999. There were 48,339 farms or 2.41% of the total farms in this category.

Very Large Farms:

  • Family farms with an annual GCFI of $5 million or more. There were 5,780 farms or 0.3% of the total farms in this category.

Non-Family Farms

  • This category describes any farm where the principal farm operators do not own a majority of the farm business. (Many times, these types of farms are referred to as “corporate farms”.) There were 47,451 farms or 2.4% of the total farms in this category.

As was pointed out earlier, 89.6% of U.S. farms (as defined by USDA) were categorized as “small family farms”, 5.3% were “midsize family farms”, 2.7% were “large-scale family farms”, and 2.4% were “non-family farms”. Based on the 2019 ERS data, following is a review of some other characteristics of these various categories of U.S. farms and other farm operator demographics:

Percentage of land operated:

  • 48.8% of farm land was operated by “small family farms”, 22.6% of land was operated by “midsize family farms”, 20.7% operated by “large-scale family farms”, and 7.9% by “non-family farms”.

Percentage of the value of farm production:

  • “Large-scale family farms” accounted for 43.8% of the value of U.S. farm production in 2019, which was followed by “small family farms” at 21.5%, “midsize family farms” at 21.1%, and “non-family farms” at 13.6%.

“Large-scale family farms”

  • accounted for over two-thirds of U.S. dairy production, 61% of U.S. cotton production, and 54% of the production of high value crops, which includes fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursey crops. This category of farm operators also accounted for 39% of U.S. cash grain production, 44% of hog production, and nearly 43% of beef production.

“Small family farms”

  • accounted for over 45% of poultry and egg production, as well as hay production; however, this category of farms accounted only 21% of cash grain production, 26% of beef production, 23% of hog production, and less than 9% of dairy production.

“Midsize family farms”

  • accounted for approximately one-third of cash grain production and nearly 39% of poultry and egg production; however, this category of farms accounted for less than 17% of beef, hog and dairy production.

“Non-family farms”

  • accounted for over 30% of the production of high value crops, as well as just under 17% of beef production and approximately 16% of hog production; however, this category of farms accounted only 7% of cash grain production, 8% of cotton production, and less than 9% of dairy production.

Government payments:

  • 81% of USDA commodity farm programs (PLC, ARC-CO and ARC-IC) in 2019 went to “large-scale farms”, “midsize farms”, and “small farms with moderate sales”, which is exactly the same as the percentage of crop land operated by these three categories of farms. These groups also received a large majority of the USDA conservation payments on working lands (CSP, EQIP, etc.). By contrast, 80% of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments, which are paid to farm owners to take crop land out of production, went to retirement farms, low-sales farms, and farm owners with off-farm occupations. Approximately 69% of farms received no government payments in 2019.

Women in agriculture:

  • Women played a key role in over half of U.S. farm operations in 2019. A higher percentage of women were either the principal operator or a co-operator of livestock and dairy operations, as well as high value crop farms, as opposed to general cash grain operations.

Farms operated by minority groups:

  • There were 112,451 Spanish, Hispanic and Latino farm operators in 2019, which is up by 13% since 2012, as well as 45,508 African American farm operators, which increased by 2% since 2012.

Even though farms have increased in size and the structures of many farm business have changed and evolved over the past few decades, approximately 98% of U.S. farms are still categorized as “family farms”. The family farms still account for over 86% of U.S, farm production. The family farms come in many shapes, sizes and types, including increasing diversity of farm operators, which helps explain some of the confusion over understanding the definition of a “family farm.”

Kent Thiesse