What exactly is a family farm? How does it differ from a factory farm?

April 2010

Dear Farm Aid,

What is a factory farm and how does it differ from a family farm?

I have some friends whose families are in farming. They were offended when I wore my "Stop Factory Farms" t-shirt. I don't consider their farms as factory farms. But I just don't know the distinction.

—John N.
Charlotte, NC

We get asked this question frequently, from people just like you, John. They're curious about what a family farmer really is, how to spot a factory farm, or if someone can be both a family farmer and run a factory farm. We also receive questions from farmers themselves who want to know if we consider them a family farm or a factory farm. You name it — we're asked it.

At Farm Aid, we consider these questions seriously. After all, our mission is to keep family farmers on their land. So, what do we mean when we say family farmer? How do we identify a factory farm? Is there any real definition to these terms?

No Clear Lines in the Soil
In one sense, there's not. As farming in the United States becomes increasingly consolidated and industrialized, the face of agriculture is rapidly changing. Terms like "family farm" and "factory farm" are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and the lines distinguishing between one kind of farming and another are readily blurred.

For example, 98% of all the 2.2 million farms in the United States meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) definition of a "family farm." USDA considers a "family farm" any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and his or her relatives: that is, by a family.

Family farmer generationsBut this does little to characterize most family farms or the threats they face. For example, a farm itself is defined by USDA as any operation selling $1,000 or more of agricultural products in a year.[1] Plenty of people take issue with even this definition, since it's decades old—$1,000 today isn't nearly what it was when this threshold was first created. Beyond that, it allows for nearly anyone who's dabbling in growing food or raising livestock for sale, regardless of whether they consider farming their primary occupation, to be classified as a farmer. In fact, over 1.3 million farms counted by USDA are operations where the owner is not looking to make a living from farming.[2] That means only about 900,000 US farms are operated by full-time farmers who derive their livelihood from the land.

Meanwhile we are rapidly losing our full-time farmers from our landscape. Since the 1970s, the number of farms in America has dropped by nearly a quarter.[3] Most of these were midsized family farms growing grain or raising livestock—sectors that were, and still are, becoming increasingly dominated by fewer, larger farms. This concentration has historically squeezed profit margins for family farmers, forcing them to "get big or get out." The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that 80,000 midsized farms were lost since 2002. Meanwhile, the biggest farms got larger and more industrialized, with just 6% of farms producing 75% of our food.[4] These dynamics reflect a system designed to promote only the biggest and most industrialized of farms, frequently at the expense of family farmers, our economy, health, and the environment.

As new financial pressures mount and sectors reorganize, many family farmers find themselves trapped in a system they would otherwise reject. They often lament that most people misunderstand what it truly takes to farm in the United States, feeling pressured into industrial practices that harm themselves, our soil and water, our food itself and the economies that support them.

I'll say first that Farm Aid has a keen understanding of these dynamics, and works daily to provide resources for farmers in both crisis and transition. Our mission is to keep family farmers on their land, and our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline and Farmer Resource Network are there to help all family farmers. We're not here to draw lines in the sand—not because we're afraid of a little controversy, but because doing so would oversimplify the nature of agriculture in today's world.

Our vision is not just for the farm itself, but for the whole food system. We still find it incredibly meaningful and important to distinguish between the industrial system that dominates agricultural production in the United States, and our vision for a family farm-based food system.

Defining Factory Farms and the Industrial Food System
The term "factory farm" is often used interchangeably with concentrated animal feeding operation, more commonly referred to as a CAFO. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies CAFOs as large[5] livestock facilities that raise animals in confined settings. According to EPA, these facilities "congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland."[6] The EPA designates 19,149 U.S. farms as CAFOs, though it estimates hundreds of thousands more facilities that confine animals, but are not large enough to be classified as CAFOs, exist in the United States.[7] These operations produce the bulk of our meat, poultry and dairy in the United States.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that CAFOs leave staggering bills behind for taxpayers, including:

  • $26 billion in reduced property values from odor and water contamination;
  • between $1.5 billion and $3 billion annually in drug-resistant illnesses attributed to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production;
  • $4.1 billion in soil and groundwater contamination from animal manure leakage.[8]

Yuck. These externalized costs mean that the prices paid at the grocery store are not reflective of the true costs of industrial meat production to our environment and public health. Furthermore, the very powerful corporations who dictate the sorts of production practices that are responsible for these costs are not made to foot the bill.

While the term factory farm is restricted to livestock production, large-scale industrial food production dominates all sectors of agriculture, including livestock, but also row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat and our many fruits and vegetables. Over half a century of research indicates that factory farms and other large-scale industrial farms have many negative effects on the communities that house them, including greater income inequality (meaning the rich get richer while the poor get poorer), lower community employment, population decline, increased crime and social conflict, increased need for public social services, unstable family units, and diminished civic participation, to name a few.[9]

While USDA statistics suggest most of these operations are family farms, it is likely that the family farmers caught in the industrial food system do not enjoy full ownership or control over their farm operations and managerial decisions—something many experts cite as critical elements in defining a family farm.[10] Among the largest threats to their power are contract arrangements with large agribusinesses that dictate their decisions, farm management practices and debt requirements.

Most poultry companies, for example, urge new farmers to build at least four poultry houses, based on the company's own specifications, in their contract agreements. At about $300,000 per house, this requires farmers to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get started. The poultry company, on the other hand, gets off the hook without any risks associated with this investment. Very commonly, companies will later require farmers to make additional, costly changes to their poultry houses at the farmer's expense. It's clear to see who's getting the short end of the stick in this relationship.

So do most of our nation's farm operations have a family at the helm? Sure. But as we note frequently, the industrial system of agriculture is mostly benefiting a small handful of food corporations, processors, and other middlemen. The system is neither resilient nor profitable for the majority of family farmers who are left with a smaller and smaller slice of the pie, as just the largest and most industrial operations are able to thrive.

Factory farms and the industrial system are not inevitabilities, but rather the products of misguided policies. Our family farmers deserve and our future depends on a better system—one we call a family farm-based food system.

So with that, let's move on to what gets us up and out of bed every morning here at Farm Aid.

Farm Aid's Vision for the Family Farm
In the end, Farm Aid's use of the words family farm and factory farm is meant to distinguish between how agriculture is controlled and owned and to illuminate who's really benefiting. Like many in the field, we define a family farmer as someone who makes the management decisions, provides the bulk of the labor on the farm, and looks to make all or most of their living from farming. But we also extend our vision for family farmers and their farms to include the critical roles they play in their community, economy and environment.

As Farm Aid's President Willie Nelson often reminds us, family farmers are the backbone of the nation and the first rung on the economic ladder. Since the family is tied to the land, they also have a vested interest in the economic vibrancy of their community, social and ecological wellbeing of place, and are natural stewards of the land. Many farmers maintain that part of being a family farm means leaving the land in better shape than they found it, increasing the chance of the next generation enjoying bountiful harvests.

Hence, environmental stewardship, community involvement and preserving the heritage of family farming also make up our ideal of what it means to be a family farmer. Not every family farmer does all of these things, but they have the potential to do so. In times of financial crisis, food scares, public health crises, and climate change, protecting and fostering this potential is one of the most important jobs we eaters can do.

Keeping family farmers on the land—all of them—is our only hope for a better system of agriculture in this country. We work every day to keep these farmers thriving, but also to grow the Good Food Movement, which encourages consumers to choose local, sustainable and humanely-raised foods, deepens relationships between producers and consumers, and incorporates the values that promote social, environmental and economic health in our food system. Every time you buy organic, locally-grown, humanely-raised and non-GMO food, you are getting us that much closer to realizing our vision for a family farm-based food system that benefits farmers and eaters alike, as well as the communities and environments that support them.

Such a vision is one we can all rally behind and here at Farm Aid, we're happy to keep banging that drum for change.

Many thanks for such an important question, John. We stand by your friends and all family farmers, and thank you and all our readers who share our vision for a better system of agriculture.


For more information on finding family farmed food in your area, click here.

Click here to read about Russ Kremer, a Missouri family farmer that made the switch from factory farming to more sustainable methods.

What do you think about our answer to this question? Are "factory farms" really so different from "family farms?" What's your definition? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Your thoughtful comments are encouraged, but all comments are held for moderation to protect against spam. Farm Aid does not censor or refuse comments for content unless they are spam or a personal attack.


1. USDA ERS (2009). "Farm Household Economics and Well-Being: Glossary." Retrieved April 13, 2010, from http://www.ers.usda.gov/BRIEFING/WellBeing/glossary.htm

2. Included in this number are "retirement" and "rural residence" farms as counted by USDA. These farms are operated by individuals who do not consider farming their primary occupation. Numbers are taken from USDA ERS (2010). Structural Characteristics, for All Farms, by Farm Typology, 2008. Agricultural Resource Management Survey, USDA Economic Research Service.

3. According to USDA, there were 2.9 million farms in the US in 1970. By 2008, the number had dropped by one-quarter to about 2.19 million. Data pulled from Dimitri, C., Effland, Anne (2005). Milestones in U.S. Farming and Farm Policy Amber Waves. Washington, D.C., USDA Economic Research Service andUSDAERS (2010). Structural Characteristics, for All Farms, by Farm Typology, 2008. Agricultural Resource Management Survey, USDA Economic Research Service.

4. 2007 Census of Agriculture.

5. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a broad definition fo ranimal feeding operations (AFOs), which it defines as facilities that raise animals in confined settings. Defining a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) comes down to a matter of size. Depending on the animal species, usually poultry, swine, dairy or beef cattle, the number of animals confined determines whether a farm is an AFO or a CAFO, and whether it is a small, medium or large CAFO. The EPA estimates 450,000 AFOs exist in the United States, of which 19,149 are designated CAFOs. Size classifications for CAFOs are available at: www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/sector_table.pdf.

6. EPA (2007). "Animal Feeding Operations-NPDES Frequently Asked Questions." Retrieved April 13, 2010, from http://cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/faqs.cfm?program_id=7.

7. EPA (2010). NPDES CAFO Rule Implementation Status — National Summary. Washington, D.C., Environmental Protection Agency. April 9, 2010.

8. Union of Concerned Scientists (2009). The hidden costs of CAFOs. Earthwise, Union of Concerned Scientists. Spring 2009.

9. Stofferahn, C. W. (2006). Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being: An Update of a 2000 Report by Linda Lobao. Prepared for the State of North Dakota, Office of the Attorney General. Grand Forks, North Dakota, University of North Dakota.

10. USDA ERS (2009). "Farm Household Economics and Well-Being: Glossary." Retrieved April 13, 2010, from http://www.ers.usda.gov/BRIEFING/WellBeing/glossary.htm

Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 8:25:05 AM 
This is the biggest scientific experiment proving organic farms are more sustainable, more nutritious, and more ecological than factory farms:

Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 8:49:28 AM 
Splitting hairs over types of farms and what to call them is really secondary to the Dutch company that can eliminate soil and water contamination from most AFO's & CAFO's that store their wastes in lagoons while also eliminating the odors they generate.

Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 8:57:50 AM 
Living in Iowa, I am surrounded by Hog Confinements. I DESPISE THEM! Bring Back Family Hog Farms and stay the heck away from all products that are Commercially Owned and Operated!
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 9:52:58 AM 
This is an enlightening article and I think the issues addressed are so important. As a community gardener; I am hoping to help educate our community about some of these issues and I can definitely use this article as a starting point. Thank you.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 10:21:54 AM 
I think your analysis is accurate. When I think of factory farms - I think of the large cornfields in Illinois that stretch into the horizon, or cattle - both dairy and meat - in feedlots without access to grass or room to move. Farm Aid also needs to recognize the new generation of sustainable farms that are marketing wholesome nutritious foods via CSA's, buyer's clubs, and/or farmers markets. Many of these farms are atypical farms, small in acreage but big on ideas.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 10:40:22 AM 
when i think of family farms i think the big red barn. when i think factory farms i think dead animals.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 10:50:18 AM 
I worked on a family farm when I was younger. You did what ever chores needed to be done. Then they fed you lunch as one big family, you went back to the fields or the barn and finished the days work. If you wanted you could stay for a family dinner. I had ot go home. Tese people loved the land and what the were growing and producing. The corporate officers in the factory farms could care less about the people working for them or what they produced. They only care about getting more crops out the land and producing more meat out of the animals.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 10:52:28 AM 
We are truly at an important crossroads when it comes to our food systems and agriculture. This is not only an issue of "crops and dollar signs" it is about people - children, families, friends, communities and their health and well being in all senses. A family farm recognizes this. A family farm respects the land and people that are inextricably connected to it. I am struck by the "family" aspect of the phrase. A family farm supports and connects the members of a family in a way that promotes a perpetuation of the family and the farm. A factory farm can be manned by any employee and often is so systematized and mechanized it might as well be run by robots. Children do not aspire to run a factory farm, but they do eagerly look forward to the time they can work side by side with their parents and grandparents and then to a time when the farm can be theirs and they can make their own mark on it.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 11:21:59 AM 
What an excellent and well-informed response on a difficult question! As advocates for a better agriculture, ourselves, we often find ourselves trapped by the language we use. Words and terms like sustainable, natural, family farms, etc., carry baggage and are often co-opted. Thanks so much this effort to sort a couple out for us!

George Kuepper
Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 12:46:50 PM 
When I think of factory farms, I picture GMO's, hormones, and fertilizers. I would much rather pay more (and eat less!)for organic fruits and vegetables, cut my meat consumption drastically and eat meat that is produced the way it was 100 years ago. I worry about what is in our food and I now shop in stores (a store) less convenient because of the quality of the food.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 12:50:18 PM 
From the outside some would consider our farm a "factory farm" but that is far from the truth. We are a truely a family farm and our farm is our sole source of income. We are larger that the average farm and that allows us to live a life style similar to our neighbors. I would urge everyone to not judge a farm just because of size. We take great pride in what we do everyday!
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 1:13:02 PM 
My Wife and I have a Organic dairy and farmstead cheese producer in Vermont of the last 4 years and glad I made the transition to Organic. I'm still trying to recover losses of the past 15 years.Folks it has all to do with the production model.Concentrated animal feeding operation works at just about any size farm but grazing a herd has its limits.The organic model is a real responsible model that is credible.We have surprise visits by our certifying agency and Organic Valley to ensure that my farm is in compliance. Its real bad in the dairy industry unthinkable practices that are becoming the norm.I love my cows they are all my pets from the youngest to the oldest all one hundred and twenty of them.Love what your doing keep up the good work.Thanks for reading.Who is you farmer?
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 3:23:58 PM 
The way I see it is that a family farm is a way to feed the family first, then to have some surplus to sell in order to purchase supplies or items not produced on the farm. It is a small operation, not tied to a business model, but to the land and the family. A factory farm is a business with a model of maximizing profit and minimizing (or externalizing) costs. The "farmers" operate machinery as part of the business, stress short-term profits, operate as a business in order to produce "product" in order to gain income to purchase everything from food to investments in non-farm objectives. The family farm is sustainable because it needs to be, whereas the factory farm is only profit-driven, and sustainability is secondary to immediate profit.
Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 5:31:35 PM 

The Freedom of Farming Act

Wherein any family farm, defined as an operation engaged in production agriculture that employs no full time personnel, save those within the family construct, shall have exclusive right to market all products of the farming operation, raw or value added through processing, direct to consumers, or local establishments, and shall be free of all inspection, recordkeeping, and traceability requirements of any governmental agency. The producer and consumer shall make a reasonable effort to exchange information regarding these products, and the methods of production and processing, in the formation of a covenant between them.

Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 7:05:29 PM 
Anonymous @ 4/30/2010 5:46:34 AM 
My husband and I have a small dairy farm in central NY. His business brings him in contact with farms of all sizes and I will tell you the large so called factory farms generally take better care of animals than many of the small farms. Although I am sure that there are very large farms that do not have family ownership--the number is very small. Using the criteria of outside debt would in the main remove 99% of all dairy farms from qualifying for the term "family farm". It is just too easy to divide farmers at a time when we all have to stay together. By the way using info from the union of concerned scientists does not make your info more reliable but less.
Anonymous @ 4/30/2010 11:43:15 AM 
As a proponent of farming in the USA, I would like to believe that your organization is helping with the public's perception of agriculture. Yet even your members and supporters (and likely your own team) are put off and confused by your distinction between types of farms.

I am a member of a third-generation family farm in California, and your email campaigns have been missing the mark with me, and what I find relevant to farming. I have considered dropping off your list. This is my first reply to an article.

I would suggest that agriculture is in severe risk of forever dying as we know it. I would also suggest that you re-tool your slogans and marketing to clearly support agriculture. You have a powerful voice and reach. Please use it to empower and support agriculture in the US- not to divide, fractionalize and confuse.

Thank you.
Anonymous @ 5/1/2010 8:24:52 AM 
Thanks to all for these thoughtful comments. These issues are not black and white and the last thing we aim to do at Farm Aid - ever - is to confuse or be divisive. Our aim here is to illuminate what we see as important nuances that lie at the heart of a difficult question - one we receive frequently and that asks for careful consideration. If there were easy answers, surely we'd see agreement on some of these definitions at USDA and among our farmers and farm groups. The diversity of American family farmers and farms is something we celebrate here at Farm Aid and view as necessary to the good of our country, and the future of agriculture in our country. And this diversity, by its very definition, resists a one-size-fits-all approach.

Alicia, Program Manager, Farm Aid
Anonymous @ 5/1/2010 11:17:32 AM 
Family farms are people scale and factory farms are machine scale. If you only farm from the tractor seat, you're a cog. Farming comes from the heart, it's a deep lasting respect of the land and an unquinchable need to work with the soil and animals. I think that all kids start out family famers, but sometimes the dream of farming is bargained away with the promise of making a living. They begin with a few sows and truely love farming. When they grow up, they make the economic decision to contract. I grew up on the presumption that unless you're full time, you just a hobbiest (hobbiest is a pagoritive). I now believe that farming is in the artistry and the doing, not in the time sheet. However,scale has some role, a vegi patch for the family and a csa are not the same thing. How do you tell where your food comes from, ASK! Farmers love to talk shop. I started at age 6 with my cow, Sandra. Years later, I am proud to be a 4th generation family farmer.
Anonymous @ 5/3/2010 7:23:46 AM 
Farming should be ...someone growing food or plants for use or to sell and leaving the land better for the transaction! A corporation should not be telling the farmer how and what to plant and have control over the market. That is too much the case with farming today and gives farming a screwed definition.
Anonymous @ 5/3/2010 11:39:12 AM 
Great discussion! My two cents would be not to deride "part-time" farmers as non-family farmers. As beginning farmers with very little capitol, the only way we can afford to start farming is small and part-time. As Joel Salatin says, a farm can either pay a mortgage or a salary, not both. So my husband and I both work off-farm for the majority of our income. However, this lets us learn our lessons while we are small and balance out the risk of new enterprises with paying the bills so we can stay on the land. Once the bills are paid, we can transition to full time farmers. Yay for that day!

The average age of farmers it pushing something like 60? Finding innovative ways to support the next generation of family farms is huge! And let's encourage them to start small and learn the art of farming. $1,000 is not much, but a great start to learning farming lessons!
Anonymous @ 5/7/2010 11:17:52 AM 
Tough question, decent answer, keep up the good work in getting this type of information out there.
Anonymous @ 5/21/2010 8:32:28 AM 
Thanks, Sandra, for your well thought out and careful definition of family farm.
Real life is complex. Farms are getting larger and larger and it is hard for a new farmer to get started. I think independence for farms as small businesses is key, and I hope Farm Aid can continue to fight the powerful food retail giants that try to take away that independence.
Anonymous @ 5/26/2010 2:15:52 AM 
Family farms aren't owned by large conglomerates or shouldn't be, by definition. I think that once a farmer leases out or sells a majority of goods to some corporation, then they should be reclassified into a 3rd category. I also think that people who grow a large chunk of their own foods in a sustainable was should be considered to be family farmers...just maybe have some sort of categories of "family farm". Let's face it, people who grow their own food are contributing to agriculture. Many people today can't afford the multi acre sites and would love to do more farming, but it just isn't an attainable thing for them. Even 1/2 acre farming for the self should be considered, in my opinion...even more so than dozens, hundreds or thousands of acres.
Anonymous @ 6/11/2010 10:37:03 PM 
W/ all the concern people RIGHTFULLY have about genetically-modified(GM)frankenfood- & NO notification required on American food labels- Farm Aid SHOULD start 2 draw a line in the sand about THAT. Did u hear this story?: was there a Monsanto corporation truck driving & GM seed was supposedly blowing off the truck into the crops of farmers who DO NOT WANT to grow GM frankenfood- & a farmer sued Monsanto over it & a judge ruled the FARMER had 2 PAY MONSANTO for having 'benefitted' from Monsanto's seeds in his fields?! Has anyone heard this? I would NOT b surprised. GM food should ONLY b allowed W/ STRICT CONSUMER-PROTECTION LAWS. Labels should state whether food in the container is GM. It should b up to THE CONSUMER 2 DECIDE. In Europe this is a no-brainer & THEIR consumers have the right 2 know. Do u like the idea of MOTH GENES in your strawberries or tomatoes!? If Farm Aid wants donations, draw a LINE in the SAND!
Anonymous @ 10/6/2010 1:04:25 PM 
I know that becoming a cog in the industrial machine has become the only way that many small family farmers could keep alive in our current system. I know that many of them still consider themselves "family farms" even though they only minimal control of their operation and only have one or two "customers" in whatever industrial conglomerate picks up their goods and dumps it in with everyone elses to get shipped off to a processor ror distributor. I know many of them at least tell themselves that they are perfectly happy with this arrangement, and I think some of them may actually be happy with it. But that's not may definition of farming, especially not family farming, and I know a growing number of farmers who don't think it is either.

Government regulation and intervention is becoming more and more invasive, and geared so strongly to protect and enhance the largest of the agri-business conglomerates that it's nearly impossible for small, local, independent farmers to survive or e
Anonymous @ 2/13/2013 7:33:20 AM 
No one asked me to define the term “family farm” when I was a kid, but my answer would have been quick and assured—“That’s where everybody chores in the barn and plays in the pastures. It’s at the end of the lane where the yellow bus drops us off after school, where the front door is open and the yard light is always on.” Things have changed. They had to, but... A few thoughts at my latest blog: Defining the Family Farm--You'll Know it When... http://cast-science.blogspot.com/
Anonymous @ 11/12/2013 9:16:30 AM 
this page has really helped me with my class project in all this is a great page with a lot of informaion i have also learned a lot more about family farms and factory farms thanks farmaid keep it up

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