Ask Farm Aid | April 9, 2010

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

by Alicia Harvie

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.

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.

But 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.

Click here for more information on finding family farmed food in your area.


1. USDA ERS (2009). “Farm Household Economics and Well-Being: Glossary.” Retrieved April 13, 2010, from

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 ServiceandUSDAERS (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 concentratedanimal 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:

6. EPA (2007). “Animal Feeding Operations-NPDES Frequently Asked Questions.” Retrieved April 13, 2010, from

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

Donate today

Give $100 or more to get a Farm Aid 100% recycled aluminum water bottle!

Connect with us