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Small Farms Overview

The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that small-scale farms and ranches make up over 87 percent of all farms and ranches, but produce approximately 15 percent of our food and fiber, measured by gross sales.  These small operations, however, account for about 48 percent of total farm and ranchland and, as “custodians of the bulk of farm assets—including land—small farms have a large role in natural resource and environmental policy.” (Summary, USDA, Economic Research Service Family Farm Report, 2007)

There is enormous variation among small family farms and ranches. No one definition comes close to capturing the richness and diversity of these operations.  For example, while many farmers and ranchers are loyal to their traditional production systems, others constantly seek new opportunities and experiment with alternative crops, production methods, and innovative marketing approaches. As a result, the United States produces a striking range of food and fiber, from soybeans to sesame, from beef to buffalo.

The Agricultural Census further classifies small farms and ranches based largely on annual gross sales and occupation.

    Farming occupation with high sales - 100,126 (4.5 percent)
    Operators report farming as their major occupation, with sales between $100,000 and $249,999

    Farming occupation with low sales - 258,899 (11.7 percent)
    Operators report farming as their major occupation, with sales less than $100,000

    Residential / Lifestyle - 801,844 (36.4 percent)
    Operators report major non-farming occupation

    Retirement - 456,093 (20.7 percent)
    Operators are retired

    Limited Resource - 308,837 (14 percent)
    Sales under $100,000 annually with low household income for the 2 years counted.
    Such farms are not counted under the other four categories

Small-scale producers come from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some families have been working on the land for generations, while others are new to the business; some families depend on small-scale production as their principal means of economic support, and others choose it primarily as a lifestyle. Underlying this diversity, however, small-scale farmers and ranchers share characteristics that make them a valuable resource for the United States over and above the crops and livestock they produce: a commitment to agriculture, strong links to local communities, and a need to love and care for the land.

There is considerable financial variability among these enterprises. The combination of increased concentration among food processing companies, loss of competitive markets, and reduction of government price stabilizing tools has made agricultural producers increasingly vulnerable. Small-scale farmers and ranchers, in particular, find themselves with less control over their economic security. While some have been able to exploit niche markets or proximity to urban centers, and are highly profitable, others see their profit margins erode slowly year after year, and many of the smallest enterprises suffer severely from lack of resources, fall below the poverty level, and survive only through off-farm income.

Many small farms and ranches, however, have goals other than making a living through production.  Other financial benefits include capital gains, tax reduction, In many cases, quality of life and the need to hold on to an operation for future generations offset the lack of profitable production. 

The goal of the NIFA national Small Farm Program is to enhance the economic viability of all small farm and ranch enterprises, and promote research, extension, and education programs, primarily through partnerships with the Land-Grant University System and with other public and private sector organizations.



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