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Image: Farm Economy

Farm Household Income (Historical)

Median total income for farm households increased each year from 2009 to 2013. The increase largely reflects greater income from off-farm sources, where the majority of farm households earn most, if not all, of their income. Given the broad USDA definition of a farm (see glossary), many small farms are not profitable even in the best farm income years. As a result, the median household income from farming shows a loss. However, the loss decreased over the past 5 years, with 2013 having the smallest negative value for income from farming at -$1,141.

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Note: The median is the income level at which half of all households have lower incomes and half have higher incomes. Because they are based on unique distributions, median total income will generally not equal the sum of median off-farm and median farm income.

Differences between 2012/2013 estimates and estimates from prior years reflect improved sample coverage (particularly among very small farms) and changes in survey methodology and implementation associated with the 2012 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, in addition to changes in the economic situation of farm households. One such change in survey methodology is the use of an expanded range of value codes to solicit off-farm income information, allowing farm households to report much higher incomes. These survey design changes make comparisons between farm household statistics calculated using 2012/2013 survey data with those from earlier surveys difficult to interpret. More information is available in the Background section of the Farm Household Wealth and Characteristics data product

Estimates from the 2012 ARMS differ slightly from past estimates, based on new weights from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service earlier this year.

See more statistics on principal farm operator household finances for recent years.

2013 Income Varies by Farm Typology

ERS has developed a family farm typology that considers gross cash farm income in combination with the occupational characteristics of principal farm operators (see glossary) to classify farms into more homogeneous groups. In the ERS typology, farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income are classified as small farms, and are further subdivided based on the self-reported occupation of the farm's principal operator. If the operator reports being retired or having a major occupation other than farming, the farm is classified as a “residence” farm. If he or she reports farming as a major occupation and is not retired from farming, the farm is classified as “intermediate.” “Commercial” farms are those with $350,000 or more in gross cash farm income, regardless of the occupation of the principal operator.

In contrast to residence and intermediate farms, households associated with commercial farms derive the majority of their income from farming activities (see table on principal farm operator household finances, by ERS farm typology, 2013 Excel icon (16x16)). In 2013, the median income from farming was $174,185 for households operating commercial farms, and their median total household income was $231,420. Households associated with intermediate and residence farms both reported negative median incomes from farming. However, the substantial off-farm income of residence farms provided them with higher total incomes ($82,800) than intermediate farms ($55,138) in 2013.

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Details on farm operator household incomes are grouped by:

Type of Farm Determines Primary Source of Household Income

While the number of U.S. family farms has been relatively stable for the past decade (see table on all farms and family farms, by farm size class (gross sales), 1996-2013 Excel icon (16x16)), the roughly 2.1 million family farms vary significantly in size and by the share of principal operator household income coming from farming.

The role of farm income in household finances can be understood by looking at two complementary statistics: the share of households with positive income from farming and, for them, the median percent of total household income coming from farming. Farm income contributes little to the annual income of farm households operating residence farms, is a secondary source of income for households with intermediate farms, and is a primary source of income for those operating commercial farms. In 2013, only 36 percent of residence farms had positive income from farming activities. The positive farm income received by residence farms contributed only 7 percent to their total household income (for the typical household reporting positive farm income). For intermediate farms, 47 percent had positive farm income, which comprised 28 percent of their total household income. Finally, 90 percent of commercial farms had positive farm income, and farm income accounted for 84 percent of their total household income.

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Commodity Specialization

A farm's specialization is determined by the one commodity or group of commodities that makes up at least 50 percent of the farm's total value of agricultural production (see glossary).

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In any given year, production and market conditions will vary for farms that specialize in different commodities. Differences in household income across commodity specialization, however, may also stem from basic differences in the types of households that engage in the production of specific commodities. For example, with its large and consistent time demands, managing a dairy farm rarely permits an operator to work many hours off-farm and is a main reason why farm income is a large share of total income for dairy farm households but not for households involved in the production of many other commodities. Consequently, operators with a high paying off-farm job, or the potential to obtain one, are more likely to specialize in an activity that, unlike dairy farming, readily permits working many hours off the farm.

Households associated with farms specializing in cash grains such as corn, soybeans, sorghum or wheat had a median total household income of $95,050 in 2013. Median total household income was $83,396 for those specializing in rice, tobacco, cotton, or peanuts. Hog and dairy producers had the highest median total household income for livestock producers, at $99,476 and $86,787, respectively.

Income by Farm Resource Region

Incomes of farm households vary by location as well, largely reflecting regional variation in farm typology and commodity specialization. The ERS farm resource region classification groups farm production areas based on common soil, climate, and agronomic needs. These conditions cut across State boundaries (see details in ERS Farm Resource Regions). In 2013, out of the nine ERS resource regions, only the Heartland and Northern Great Plains regions had a positive median farm income for family farms ($3,134 and $2,048, respectively), and are the only resource regions with positive farm income over the last 5 years. The Heartland has the largest number of farms, the highest value of production, and the most cropland. The region is mainly comprised of cash grain and cattle farms. The Northern Great Plains has the largest farms (in terms of acres operated) yet among the fewest farms, and consists mainly of wheat, cattle, and sheep farms.

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Last updated: Friday, May 22, 2015

For more information contact: Daniel Prager