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Even Mega-Farms Are Mostly Family Owned

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Farms are getting bigger and the smallest farms aren’t real farms — that’s what I told you last week in a story about how the official definition of “farm” in the national Agricultural Census obscures the consolidation that the farming industry has experienced over the past 30 years. But there’s another important part to this story: Consolidation isn’t the same thing as the loss of family farms. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. farms are family-owned, according to the most recent Agricultural Census.1

Even big farms are usually family-owned. Of farms with gross annual sales of $1 million or more, 94 percent are family farms. Of farms with 10,000 acres or more, 86 percent are family businesses. Nor is this a situation where a tiny fraction of non-family farms own most of the land or produce an outsized portion of our food. For both stats, non-family farms represent less than 10 percent of the total. What’s more, the balance of power between corporate and family farms hasn’t changed much during the decades when farms got more and more massive.

Even mega-farms, in other words, aren’t being run by faceless corporate elites. Instead, it’s more like Old MacDonald got himself a bigger, GPS-enabled tractor and now farms land that used to belong to three of his neighbors.

The caveat: Corporate farms are important in specific farming niches. Corporations have more of a presence in cattle feedlots, fruit and nut farms, and the chicken industry, according to James MacDonald, chief of the Structure, Technology and Productivity branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Even in those sectors, though, family farms typically account for a large majority of production.

Footnotes

  1. Because family businesses are frequently incorporated for tax purposes, it can be a little complex to determine what is and isn’t a “family farm.” The Agricultural Census considers a farm family-owned if it is either unincorporated or, if incorporated, has fewer than 10 shareholders. Other sources use slightly different definitions, but they come up with similar numbers.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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