New report illustrates diversity among family farms

farm-droughtMost farms in the United States, including those in Virginia, are family-operated, but not all family farms are the same.

That is the thrust of a report recently issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The report, using a new classification system, examined annual revenue of U.S. farms, major occupations of farm operators and family and nonfamily farm ownership. It defined a family farm as any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator.

Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said the report is important “because we need to understand that not all farms are the same and that their owners have differing perspectives and needs when it comes to agriculture and rural policies and infrastructure.”

Banks noted that, with slight variation, Virginia farm sizes and characteristics are similar to the national averages in the report. In Virginia, as well as nationwide, 90 percent of family farms would be considered small, with an annual gross cash income of $349,999 or less.

The USDA report noted that, while small farms operate half of the nation’s total farmland, they account for only 26 percent of production. Family farms of different types account for 97 percent of U.S. farms and 85 percent of production.

In terms of crops, the report noted that different types of farms account for the production of specific commodities. Midsize and large-scale family farms dominate the production of cotton, cash grain and hogs. Large-scale family farms and nonfamily farms dominate the production of high-value crops and dairy. Small farms produce roughly half of the nation’s hay, poultry and other livestock.

Many farms have multiple operators, and many larger farms have multiple generations of operators. Thirty-two percent of U.S. farms have a principal operator at least 65 years old. The report pointed out that the presence or absence of younger related operators can affect farm expansion and contraction decisions as well as succession.

The nonfarm economy is critically important to operators of small family farms. Because many small-farm households rely on off-farm sources for most of their income, general economic policies can be as important to them as farm policy.

The full report is available at


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