What is a Family Farmer?

The truth is there is no hard-and-fast definition of a family farm. The US Department of Agriculture (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.[1] The family part is essential, yes, but many scholars and advocates emphasize the importance of the family being able to exercise true ownership and control over the business and production decisions they make on their farms.

Here at Farm Aid, we see how our corporate-controlled, industrial food system is taking away the ability of family farmers to enjoy full ownership and control over their farms (not to mention our choices as eaters!). Increasingly, farmers receive prices that in no way keep up with the skyrocketing costs of running their farms—particularly in sectors like dairy and livestock. They are straddled with unmanageable debt. They see dwindling markets where they can only sell to very few corporations. And increasingly, they feel disconnected from the many eaters on the other end of the food system.

The industrial agriculture system is neither resilient nor profitable for the majority of family farmers. It leaves eaters with fewer options to support good food from family farmers, while pushing droves of family farms out of business. Farm Aid works to illuminate how agriculture is owned and controlled and who is really benefiting. 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 and their role in delivering good food for all.

Why are family farms important?

As Farm Aid's President Willie Nelson often reminds us, family farmers are the cultural and economic backbone of the country. Family farmers have a vested interest in the health of their land and the economic and social vibrancy of their community, and as such, not only produce healthy food for all, but also steward our natural resources, contribute to their communities and support their local economies. Not every family farmer does all of these things, but they have the potential to do so. In times of economic downturn, 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—all of them— on the land is our only hope for a better food system in this country. Farm Aid works every day to keep family farmers thriving.

We started out to save the family farmer. Now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us. -- Willie Nelson

How many family farms are there?

According to the USDA definition, 98% of all the 2 million farms in the U.S. are family farms. 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.

But we have to dig a little deeper to have a meaningful conversation about family farmers. For example, a farm is defined by USDA as any operation selling at least $1,000 of agricultural products in a year. Many people take issue with this definition since it's decades old—$1,000 today isn't nearly what it was when the threshold was first created. Beyond that, it allows for nearly anyone dabbling in growing food for sale, regardless of whether they consider farming their primary occupation, to be classified as a farmer. In fact, over 1.2 million farms counted by USDA are operations where the owner is not looking to make a living from farming.[2] That leaves only about 950,000 farms operated by farmers who derive their livelihood from the land.

Why are we losing family farmers?

Since the 1970s, the number of American farms has dropped by 25 percent.[3] Most of these were small and midsized family farms growing food in sectors that 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." Today just 12% of farms produce 84% of our food.[4]

These dynamics reflect a corporate-dominated food system designed to promote only the biggest and most industrialized of farms and the very powerful corporations that control most of the food we eat. As financial pressures mount, many family farmers are forced to leave the business, while others find themselves trapped in a system of industrial practices that harm farmers, our soil and water, and rural communities.

Take Action with Farm Aid

Farm Aid works to support a thriving system of family farm agriculture. We do this by connecting farmers to the resources they need to survive and thrive through our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline and Farmer Resource Network. We work to shine a spotlight on family farmers, making sure they are celebrated (especially at our annual benefit concert!). And we work to empower everyone – eaters, farmers, artists, policymakers – to understand the critical issues family farmers face and to support family farm agriculture in their daily lives. Through our grant program, we invest in a diversity of solutions and innovative models that address the needs of family farmers, challenge the industrial food system, and grow the Good Food Movement.

The good news is we are making a difference! Farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and other farm to table efforts that reconnect farmers and eaters are booming. In 2008, local food sales rose to $4.8 billion—a great number.[5] But that's less than 5% of the $1 trillion that we spend on food each year, so we have a ways to go in reaching our vision.

Every time you buy directly from family farmers or choose organic, locally-grown, humanely-raised and non-GMO food; any time you raise your voice in support of fair farm policies or become informed about key issues facing farmers; any time you join Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews in our day-long concert celebration—you are building a better future. With your participation, we're getting closer to realizing our vision for a family farm-based food system that benefits farmers and eaters alike—a system that builds a better America.

Further Reading


1. USDA Economic Research Service Glossary. (2014). http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-household-well-being/glossary.aspx

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. USDA ERS (2014). Structural Characteristics, for All Farms, by Collapsed Farm Typology, 2012. Agricultural Resource Management Survey, USDA Economic Research Service.

3. There were 2.9 million farms in the US in 1970. By 2012, the number had dropped by one-quarter to about 2.16 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 and USDA ERS (2014). Structural Characteristics, for All Farms, by Farm Typology, 2012. Agricultural Resource Management Survey.

4. USDA ERS. (2010) Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report 2010 Edition.

5. USDA ERS. (2011) Direct and Intermediated Marketing of Local Foods in the United States.