Family farms feed and sustain much of the world and offer social and economic benefits to their communities, even in an age of large corporate farms and food processors. “Agriculture would not be the same without family-owned farms,” says Scott Gunderson, a University of Wisconsin-Extension dairy agent. “They truly are the fabric of rural America.”
The United States Department of Agriculture defines a family farm as a sole proprietorship, partnership or family corporation, ranging from very large farms with income over $500,000 to small operations bringing in under $250,000. You can find many farms where several families work on, manage and profit from a single operation.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture counted 2.2 million American farms, with 96 percent classified as a family operation. However, large farms making more than $250,000 annually sold nearly two-thirds of the food and textiles produced in the United States, although that represented barely 9 percent of family farms, the 2007 Census found. The approximately 2 million small farms and ranches in the nation contributed about 15 percent of the food and fiber production.
Rural economies in many areas flourish because of the family agriculture surrounding them. Residents work on the farms or in other agricultural businesses, and the farmers spend their money within the community. Large corporate agricultural businesses, on the other hand, often run lean operations and do not spend locally, according to Sustainable Table, an organization devoted to sustainable local food production. The U.S. Agriculture Census shows that farmers and ranchers pump nearly $300 billion into the national economy, while supplying food and fiber to the nation. As an example, just one dairy cow on one operation puts $17,000 into the economy each year, as Gunderson points out.
Benefits to Society
Family farming keeps rural areas thriving and green as farmers care for the land, Gunderson says. Small farmers and ranchers care for half of all the agricultural land in the United States, making them key players in preserving the environment, according to the Department of Agriculture.
As large corporate farms, often called factory farms, make inroads into the American agricultural scene, small family farms struggle. That is pushing more than 300 family farmers out of business each week, Sustainable Table points out. In the 1930s, America had 5 million more farms than it does in 2010. In addition, fewer sons and daughters of farmers take up the reins to continue the operations.