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What is a Family Farm?

Farm Ownership in 1997
Source: USDA/National Agricultural Statistic Service

The family farm: The phrase exerts a powerful pull on the American imagination even in a nation that is largely urban and suburban. But what defines a family farm? Some feel that it all comes down to economics—that the family farm is based solely on the volume of sales and assets the farm generates. Others think the most important feature is the lifestyle on the farm. Take a look at what some are saying about the family farm in the United States today.

"One of our greatest challenges has been attempting to define the family farm. We have visited farms ranging from 4,000 acres to under a hundred; farms which use millions of dollars of equipment and farms that use only one tractor; farms that are run by a family of four to farms that are run by a family fifteen; farms that are organized like corporations and farms that are considered 'hobby farms'. Despite these vast differences, we found one common thread holding these farms together—the family. Regardless of technology, size, and product, all farms depend on the commitment of family members. These farms survive, in part, because of the unconditional participation of the whole family."

From Kenyon College's Family Farm Project—Gambier, Ohio.

"A family farm is defined as one in which the farm's ownership, assets, management, and major decisions are controlled by at least one family member on the farm. A corporate farm is defined as a legal structure which limits its liabilities only to corporate assets on matter such as debt, environmental liabilities, contracts, etc."

From The Ohio Family Farm Coalition.

"The family farmer still plays a multiple role. He is owner, worker, and manager. Moreover, he is a marketer - and markets are open to him."

"Family farms are implicitly of modest size, but size is defined in terms of what family labor can care for. Acreage, investment, or volume of sales figures are less applicable. Most labor on a family farm is provided by the family. Thus, hired labor cannot exceed labor provided by the farmer and family. The maximum amount of hired labor is often put at either 1-1/2 or 2 man years. The key feature is that family labor dominates."

"All land need not be owned by the farm operator, but most family farmers will own at least part of the land they farm. A few may temporarily be full tenants, but neither widespread nor life-long tenancy is considered to be family farming."

"Management may be vested in individual proprietors or family partnerships, but the right to make independent production and marketing decisions is crucial. Family farmers can freely buy supplies and sell the commodities they produce. If they must have production contracts, they are not truly family farmers. Open markets are essential."

"Even though family farms are not defined here by volume of sales or assets, a system dominated by a relative handful of very large farms would not be considered a family farming system, regardless of who owns, works on, or manages individual farms."

"On the other hand, a family farm does not mean an unprofitable small farm. It is one where efficient production methods enable farmers to earn acceptable incomes in line with their personal abilities."

From "Does the Family Farm Really Matter?" by Harold F. Breimyer of the Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia and A.L. (Roy) Frederick of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Kansas State University.

"The term 'family farm' means a farm that— (A) produces agricultural commodities for sale in such quantities so as to be recognized in the community as a farm and not as a rural residence; (B) produces enough income, including off-farm employment, to pay family and farm operating expenses, pay debts, and maintain the property; (C) is managed by the operator; (D) has a substantial amount of labor provided by the operator and the operator's family; and (E) uses seasonal labor only during peak periods, and uses no more than a reasonable amount of full-time hired labor."

From The House of Representatives Resources 2000 Act, HR 798, Sec. 805: No. (2) (link will open PDF file)

"A farm classification system is necessary because farms are diverse. Farms differ in their goals, strategies to meet these goals, the use and control of their resources, and the economic results of their farm and off-farm activities. The typology divides farms into more homogeneous groups to aid in policy discussions."

From America's Diverse Family Farms: Assorted Sizes, Types, and Situations Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 769, page 2. (link will open PDF file)

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