Small, medium, large – Does farm size really matter?

This is the question that the recent U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) Food Dialogues: Boston explored.

It is also a common question asked of producers and Michigan State University Extension educators when interacting with the public. To start, what is a farm? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a farm as any establishment which produced and sold, or would have sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the year. Given that definition, the 2007 census indicates that Michigan had 56,014 farms with an average farm size of 179 acres (note: one acre equates to a little less than a 100-yard long American football field).

In the United States, the vast majority (nearly 96 percent) of the 2.2 million farms are family owned and operated. The USDA defines a family farm as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation. Family farms exclude farms organized as nonfamily corporations or cooperatives, as well as farms with hired managers” (USDA, Economic Research Service 2007 Family Farm Report). Using gross annual sales, the USDA further classifies family farms as:

  • Small- less than $250,000 
  • Large - between $250,000 and $500,000
  • Very large – more than $500,000

Acreage is another way to assess farm size. According to the USDA, small family farms average 231 acres; large family farms average 1,421 acres and the very large farm average acreage is 2,086. It may be surprising to note that small family farms make up 88 percent of the farms in America.

As for the recent Food Dialogues, it began with a virtual video tour of three family farms including a 250 acre corn and soybean farm, a 700 acre crop and livestock farm and a 1,800 acre corn and soybean farm. The panel consisted of seven members; four farmers representing one large, one medium and two small family farms (one rural, one urban), an agriculture economist, the executive director of a non-profit health advocacy organization and the vice president for brand strategy and development for a culinary consulting practice. Alan Bjerga, author and agriculture policy reporter for Bloomberg News moderated the discussion.

After exploring topics such as genetically engineered crops, crop diversity, labor, factors that influence consumer food purchases and preferences, relationships with agribusinesses, food justice, technology and the future of agriculture some of the take away messages from the discussion include:

  • The consumer pull is strong and consumers are increasingly interested in how food is grown and raised
  • Farmers are trying to do the best they possibly can
  • All farms need to keep moving towards sustainability
  • It takes farms of all sizes to produce food, maintain open space and protect our quality of life
  • It will take all sizes and production methods to feed the world

Given the above, yes, one could say that farm size really matters and yes, small, medium and large farms all have an important role to play. To take part in the next Food Dialogues: Iowa, a Frank Discussion about Food or to listen to a recording of the Boston event visit:

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