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There are over 313,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). In 2007, only 45% of farmers claimed farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation. The number of farms in the U.S. stands at about 2.2 million.

What is a farm?

For the purposes of the U.S. Census, a farm is any establishment which produced and sold, or normally would have produced and sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the year. (Government subsidies are included in sales.) By that definition, there are just over 2.2 million farms in the United States.

Farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm. Clearly, many farms that meet the U.S. Census' definition would not produce sufficient income to meet farm family living expenses. In fact, fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the vast majority of farms in this country (87%) are owned and operated by individuals or families. The next largest category of ownership is partnerships (8%). The "Corporate" farms account for only 4% of U.S. farms and 1 percent are owned by other-cooperative, estates or trusts etc. However, the term "family farm" does not necessarily equate with "small farm"; nor does a "corporate farm" necessarily mean a large-scale operation owned and operated by a multi-national corporation. Many of the country's largest agricultural enterprises are family owned. Likewise, many farm families have formed modest-sized corporations to take advantage of legal and accounting benefits of that type of business enterprise.

In spite of the predominance of family farms, there is strong evidence of a trend toward concentration in agricultural production. By 2007, a mere 187,816 of the 2.2 million farms in this country accounted for 63% of sales of agricultural products (USDA, 2007 Census of Agriculture).

Principal Farm Operations and Self Employed Workers in Non Ag Industries 65 Years and Older

Source: USDA-Economic Research Service

In 1935, the number of farms in the United States peaked at 6.8 million as the population edged over 127 million citizens. As the number of farmers has declined, the demand for agricultural products has increased. This increased demand has been met (and exceeded) with the aid of large-scale mechanization (the use of large, productive pieces of farm equipment), improved crop varieties, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides. The need for human labor has also declined as evidenced by the increase in agricultural labor efficiency over the past century – from 27.5 acres/worker in 1890 to 740 acres/worker in 1990 (Illinois data; Hunt, 2001).

As the U.S. farm population has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise. In fact, about sixty percent of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The average age of a principal operator of a farm has increased from 54 years old in 1997 to 57 years old in 2007. (USDA, 2007 Census of Agriculture). The percentage of principle farm operators 65 years or older has increased almost 10 percent since 1969, as shown in the graphic to the right. The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution.

So, back to the question of what is a farm. According to Ross Korves, Deputy Chief Economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, there are eight types of farms in the United States that can be grouped into two categories:

Percent of Farms and Sales

Source: USDA-Economic Research Service

Small Family Farms (sales less than $250,000)

  1. Retirement farms - Small farms whose operators report they are retired (excludes limited-resource farms operated by retired farmers).
  2. Residential/lifestyle farms - Small farms whose operators report a major occupation other than farming (excludes limited resource farms).
  3. Limited-resource farms - Any small farm with: gross sales less than $100,000, total farm assets less than $150,000, and total operator household income less than $20,000.
  4. Farming occupation/lower-sales farms - Small farms with sales less than $100,000 whose operators report farming as their major occupation (excludes limited-resource farms whose operators report farming as their major occupation).
  5. Farming occupation/higher-sales farms - Small farms with sales between $100,000 and $249,000 whose operators report farming as their major occupation.

Other Farms

  1. Large family farms – Farms with sales between $250,000 and $499,999.
  2. Very large family farms – Farms with sales of $500,000 or more.
  3. Non-family farms – Farms organized as non-family corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms operated by hired managers.

Based on these definitions of farm types, the number of farms within each type is shown in the following table:

Farm Type
Number of Farms
Percent of Farms
Non-Family Farms
Very Large Family Farms
Large Family Farms
Limited Resource
Farming Occupation/Higher Sales
Farming Occupation/Lower Sales

Given the different types of farms described above, it is easy to see that there is a wide variation in what constitutes a farm in the United States. Any criterion for declaring a farm small or large, viable or otherwise is open to debate. When asked the question, "How large would a crop and livestock operation have to be to be considered economically viable for the long term?" a group of Purdue University agricultural economists offered the following response in 2002:

An economically viable crop/livestock operation in the Corn Belt would have between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of row crops and between 500 and 600 sows.

U.S. USDA. NASS. 2007 Census of Agriculture. N.p., 10 Dec. 2009. Web. <http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Full_Report/usv1.pdf>. Exit EPA

U.S. USDA. NASS. 2007 Census of Agriculture Farm Numbers. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/Farm_Numbers/farm_numbers.pdf>. Exit EPA

U.S. USDA. ERS. U.S. and State Farm Income and Wealth Statistics. N.p., Feb. 2013. Web. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/farm-income-and-wealth-statistics.aspx#.UV2u0JMX-w5>. Exit EPA

U.S. USDA. ERS. Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2007 Edition / EIB-24. N.p., 2007. Web. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/201435/eib24c_1_.pdf>.Exit EPA


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