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ICYMI... Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Farms of different sizes rely on different mixes of labor. During the 5 years encompassing 2013–2017, the principal operator and the operator’s spouse provided most of the labor hours (75 percent) used on small farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 44 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 19 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 69 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Small and midsized farms are more numerous, but account for less production overall. Overall, principal operators and their spouses provided 47 percent of the labor hours used on U.S. farms in 2013–17, while hired labor provided 35 percent, and other operators and other unpaid family labor provided another 9 percent of total hours, the same share as contract labor (workers employed by firms hired by the farm). Contract laborers were particularly important on very large farms, contributing over 27 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture. This Chart of Note was originally published April 15, 2019.

Contracts governed one-third of the value of agricultural production in 2017, with a concentration in livestock

Friday, July 12, 2019

Contracts are widely used in the production and sale of U.S agricultural commodities. Contracts provide farmers with a tool for managing income risks. Farmers also use contracts to obtain compensation for higher product quality, specify outlets for products, and provide assurance of sales for debt financing. Processors use contracts to ensure timely flows of inputs and greater control over the characteristics and consistency of the products they acquire. In 2017, 49 percent of livestock were raised under contract agreements—usually between farmers and processors—while contracts governed 21 percent of crop production. The share of crops produced under contract has declined in recent years as farmers turned to other methods for managing risks, such as diversification, hedging through futures markets, and investing in storage. This chart appears in the December 2018 report America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2018 Edition and the July Data Feature of the ERS Amber Waves magazine, “Marketing and Production Contracts Are Widely Used in U.S. Agriculture.”

Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Monday, April 15, 2019

Farms of different sizes rely on different mixes of labor. During the 5 years encompassing 2013–2017, the principal operator and the operator’s spouse provided most of the labor hours (75 percent) used on small farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 44 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 19 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 69 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Small and midsized farms are more numerous, but account for less production overall. Overall, principal operators and their spouses provided 47 percent of the labor hours used on U.S. farms in 2013–17, while hired labor provided 35 percent, and other operators and other unpaid family labor provided another 9 percent of total hours, the same share as contract labor (workers employed by firms hired by the farm). Contract laborers were particularly important on very large farms, contributing over 27 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

Small farms represented one-quarter of total production in 2017; share varied by commodity

Friday, April 5, 2019

The distribution of U.S. farm production varies by commodity and farm size. In 2017, small family farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000—produced most of the hay (76 percent) and poultry (60 percent). As a group, small family farms accounted for about 89 percent of all U.S. farms and 26 percent of U.S. agricultural production. By comparison, large-scale family farms—those with GCFI of at least $1 million—produced most of the dairy (68 percent), high-value crops like fruits and vegetables (56 percent), and cotton (55 percent). Large-scale family farms accounted for about 3 percent of all farms and 39 percent of total production. Midsize family farms—those with GCFI between $350,000 and $1 million—contributed large shares of cash grains and soybeans (36 percent), cotton (30 percent), and poultry (29 percent). These midsize farms together accounted for about 6 percent of all farms and 23 percent of total production. Nonfamily farms account for the remaining farms and production. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Structure and Organization, updated December 2018.

Crop production in the Heartland has shifted to farms with at least 1,000 acres

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Past ERS research on consolidation in the U.S. farm sector has documented a widespread shift in agricultural production to large-scale operations. This structural change has likely been partly driven by productivity advantages enjoyed by larger operations. Recent ERS research examined consolidation trends in the Heartland region—which includes all of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and parts of Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Between 1982 and 2012, the Heartland’s largest crop farms (more than 1,000 acres) increased their share of total production in the region from 17 percent in 1982 to 59 percent in 2012. In contrast, over the same period, the share of total production declined for the four smaller farm size categories. Midsized farms (250–500 acres) experienced the largest decline in market share, falling from about 30 percent in 1982 to 10 percent in 2012. In aggregate, the productivity of crop farms in the Heartland region increased by 64 percent, or 1.5 percent per year, between 1982 and 2012. ERS researchers estimate that about one-sixth of this productivity growth was attributable to the shift in production to larger farms. This chart appears in the December 2018 Amber Waves feature “Productivity Increases With Farm Size in the Heartland Region.”

One-third of U.S. farm output is produced under contract, but the share differs by commodity

Monday, December 17, 2018

Farmers use contracts to manage price and production risks and ensure a market for their products. Processors, integrators, and buyers use contracts to procure farm products with specific qualities and reduce supply uncertainty. The share of value of production that was under contract across all commodities in 2017 was 34 percent, close to the share in 1996/1997 (32 percent). More than 50 percent of U.S. peanuts, tobacco, sugar beets, hogs, and poultry/eggs in 2017 were produced under contract. In contrast, less than 20 percent of wheat, soybeans, and corn were grown under contract. The share of tobacco production under contract jumped from less than 1 percent in 1996/1997 to 90 percent in 2017, as cigarette manufacturers switched from cash auctions to contracts to ensure a sufficient supply of specific types of tobacco. The share of hogs produced under contract nearly doubled, from 34 percent in 1996/97 to 63 percent in 2017. Hog processors can use contracts to better control the characteristics of the hogs they acquire, helping them offer more consistent quality of meat to consumers. The decline in dairy reported under contract may reflect changing perceptions of farmers about their transactions with dairy cooperatives; more research is required to clarify that dynamic. This chart appears in the ERS report America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2018 Edition, released December 2018.

Pasture and rangeland have shifted to smaller farms over time

Monday, October 29, 2018

Unlike cropland, which has shifted toward larger farms since the 1980s, the other major component of U.S. farmland—permanent pasture and rangeland—has shifted to smaller farms. In 1987, farms and ranches with at least 10,000 acres of pasture and rangeland operated more than half (51 percent) of all pasture and rangeland, while those with less than 1,000 acres held 15 percent. By 2012, the share operated by the largest acreage class had gradually fallen to 44 percent, while the share of farms and ranches with less than 1,000 acres of pasture and rangeland had risen to 22 percent. Consolidation in cropland is driven by technologies—such as bigger, faster, and smarter pieces of equipment—that allow a single farmer or farm family to manage more cropland. Improvements in those technologies have not led to consolidation in pasture and rangeland, however, because planting, spraying, and harvesting machinery are rarely used on pasture and range. Pasture and rangeland are primarily used for grazing beef cows and their calves, although other livestock such as sheep, horses, and bison are also grazed. In 2012, 45 percent (over 400 million acres) of all U.S. farmland was devoted to pasture and grazing land. This chart appears in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

Small farms produce a different mix of commodities than larger farms

Monday, August 13, 2018

Commodity mixes differ by farm size. For example, hogs and poultry accounted for 29 percent of the production of small farms in 2016, a much greater share than in other size classes. Small farms typically raise the animals for processors under contracts, which reduces price risks and allows them access to bank financing. Dairy production and fruit, vegetable, and nursery crops—where economies of scale give an advantage to larger farms—accounted for 59 percent of the output of very large farms, compared to 12 percent of the output of small farms. Midsize farms emphasize corn and soybean production, as well as other field crops. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

Livestock production has shifted to more specialized farms over time

Friday, July 6, 2018

Livestock production has become increasingly specialized, relying less on homegrown and more on purchased feed. Since fully specialized farms have no cropland to absorb manure as fertilizer, they must move their manure off the farm. In 2015, 37 percent of all livestock were produced on farms that had no crop production, up from 22 percent in 1996. Specialization grew in each major livestock commodity during this period. In 2015, nearly 53 of all poultry production occurred on farms that raised no crops, up from 44 percent in 1996. Poultry manure is lighter than other manure and easier to transport, making it cheaper for a contract poultry operation to dispose of all its manure off the farm and reducing the incentive to grow crops on farm. Specialization increased substantially in hog production, where 31 percent of production occurred on farms with no crops in 2015, up from 14 percent in 1996. This chart appears in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

Older operators often run small family farms, particularly retirement and low-sales farms

Friday, May 25, 2018

A notable characteristic of principal farm operators (those most responsible for running the farm) is their relatively advanced age. In 2016, 36 percent of principal farm operators were at least 65 years old, compared with only 14 percent of self-employed workers in nonagricultural businesses. Older operators ran 37 percent of all small family farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) before expenses under $350,000—including 68 percent of retirement farms and 38 percent of low-sales farms. By comparison, older operators ran 21 percent of large family farms (GCFI of $1 million to $4,999,999) and 23 percent of very large family farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Improved health and advances in farm equipment enable operators to farm later in life than in past generations. The farm is also home for most farmers, and they can gradually phase out of farming by renting out or selling parcels of their land. Some larger, more commercially oriented farms run by older farmers may have a younger, secondary operator who might eventually replace the principal operator. This chart appears in the ERS report America's Diverse Family Farms: 2017 Edition, released December 2017.

Midpoint acreage more than doubled for all five major field crops

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Over the last three decades, the midpoint acreage—where half of acres are on farms that harvest more than the midpoint, and half are on farms that harvest less—has shifted to larger farms for almost all crops. In 1987, for example, the midpoint for corn was 200 acres, which increased to 600 acres by 2012. Four other major field crops (cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat) showed a very similar pattern: the midpoint for harvested acreage more than doubled for each crop between 1987 and 2012. The midpoints also increased persistently in each census year, with the single exception of a decline in cotton in 2012. ERS researchers repeated the analysis for a total of 55 crops in all. Consolidation was nearly ubiquitous, as the midpoint increased in 53 of 55 major field and specialty crops between 1987 and 2012. Consolidation was also substantial, as most of these midpoint increases were well over 100 percent—and it was persistent, as most midpoints increased in most census years. This chart appears in the ERS report Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture, released March 2018.

Cropland has shifted to larger farms over the last three decades

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Agricultural production has shifted to much larger farming operations over the last three decades. In 1987, more than half (57 percent) of all U.S. cropland was operated by midsize farms that had between 100 and 999 acres of cropland. The largest farms with at least 2,000 acres operated only 15 percent of U.S. cropland that year. By 2012, midsize farms held 36 percent of cropland, the same share as that held by the largest farms. That shift occurred persistently over time, as the share held by the largest farms increased in each Census of Agriculture after 1987—in 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, and 2012—while the share held by midsize farms fell in each census. By comparison, the share of cropland held by the smallest farms with less than 100 acres changed little over time, remaining at about 8 percent. Consolidation can occur through shifts in ownership, as operators of larger farms purchase land from retiring operators of midsize farms. However, most cropland is rented, and farms frequently expand by renting more cropland, often from retired farmers and their relatives. This chart appears in the ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture, released March 2018.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. farms run by multiple operators

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Commercial-sized farms often require more management and labor than an individual can provide. Additional operators can offer these and other resources, such as capital or farmland. Having a secondary operator may also provide a successor when an older principal operator phases out of farming. In 2016, nearly 40 percent of all U.S. farms had a multiple operators. Because nearly all farms are family owned, family members often serve as secondary operators. For example, 64 percent of secondary operators were spouses of principal operators. Some multiple-operator farms were also run by multiple generations, with a difference of at least 20 years between the ages of the youngest and oldest operators. These multiple-generation farms accounted for about 7 percent of all U.S. farms. Large-scale family farms and nonfamily farms were more likely to be operated by multiple generations, at about 20-25 percent of those farms. However, the operators in nonfamily multiple-generation farms were likely unrelated managers from different generations. This chart appears in the December 2017 ERS report, America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2017 Edition.

The share of indemnities from Federal crop insurance for each farm type roughly mirrors its share of harvested cropland

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

In recent Farm Acts, emphasis has shifted to a greater reliance on risk management through insurance and less reliance on income support through Government payments from commodity programs. Indemnities—payments from Federal crop insurance to compensate for losses—are roughly proportional to acres of harvested cropland. In 2016, midsize family farms and large family farms together accounted for 66 percent of indemnities and 61 percent of harvested cropland. These farms’ high share of indemnities reflects their high participation in Federal crop insurance. About two-thirds of midsize farms and three-fourths of large farms participated in Federal crop insurance, compared with only one-sixth of all U.S. farms. Grain farms—the most common specialization among midsize and large family farms—accounted for 67 percent of all participants in Federal crop insurance and 64 percent of harvested cropland in 2016. This chart appears in the ERS report America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2017 Edition, released December 2017.

Share of production by type of farm varies across commodities, 2016

Monday, December 18, 2017

Farm production has been shifting to larger farms for many years, but this trend varies by commodity. In 2016, over 45 percent of U.S. farm production occurred on the 3 percent of U.S. farms classified as large-scale family farms—with at least $1 million in annual gross cash farm income before expenses (GCFI). These farms accounted for half of hog production and two-thirds of the production of both dairy and high-value crops like fruits and vegetables. Large-scale farms also contributed 60 percent of cotton’s value of production. By comparison, small family farms—with less than $350,000 GCFI—accounted for 90 percent of U.S. farms, but contributed less than 23 percent to U.S. farm production. These small farms, however, contributed larger shares of production for poultry (59 percent) and hay (50 percent). Nonfamily farms, which accounted for 1 percent of U.S. farms, contributed about 10 percent of U.S. farm production. This chart appears in the ERS report America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2017 Edition, released December 2017.

Payments from Government farm programs have shifted to higher-income farm households to varying degrees, but with declines in some since 2013

Friday, December 1, 2017

USDA’s commodity, Federal crop insurance, and conservation programs provided about $16.9 billion in financial assistance to farm producers and landowners in 2015. Over time, as agricultural production shifted to larger farms, these programs’ payments shifted to higher-income households—which often operate larger farms. In 1991, half of commodity program payments went to farms operated by households with incomes over $60,717 (adjusted for inflation). By 2015, this midpoint value, at which half of payments went to households with higher incomes, was $146,126. Similar trends hold for other programs, though with variability across programs and over time. For example, the midpoint income level for crop insurance indemnity payments increased from 2010 to 2013, but by 2015 had dropped below the 2008 level, to $143,806. For context, the median U.S. household income shows little change over the period and in 2015 was $56,516. Payments from commodity programs reduce financial risks to specific commodity producers, while payments from federally subsidized crop insurance mitigate yield and revenue risks. Payments from conservation programs aim to conserve natural resources and reduce environmental impacts from farming. This chart appears in the ERS report The Evolving Distribution of Payments from Commodity, Conservation, and Federal Crop Insurance Programs, released November 2017.

Cropland is shifting to larger farms, even as average size changes little

Friday, November 24, 2017

Errata: On November 24, 2017, the Chart of Note article “Cropland is shifting to larger farms, even as average size changes little” was reposted to correct a mislabeling in the chart’s legend.


U.S. cropland has shifted to larger farms over time. However, between 1982 and 2012, the average (or mean) acres of cropland and harvested cropland changed little. Acreage averages have been stable because the largest and smallest crop farms grew in number, while farms in the middle declined. With only small changes in total cropland and total crop farms, average acreages changed minimally. The trend in midpoint acreage—at which half of all cropland acres are on farms with more cropland than the midpoint and half are on farms with less—captures the consolidation of cropland better than average acreage. As cropland shifts to larger farms, the midpoint increases. Between 1982 and 2012, the midpoint acreage for both cropland and harvested cropland roughly doubled to about 1,200 acres each. This shift was aided by technologies that allowed a single farmer or farm household to farm more acres. This chart appears in the ERS report America's Diverse Family Farms, 2016 Edition, released December 2016.

The share of beginning midsize farms held steady from 2005 to 2014

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The aging of the overall farm population raises questions about whether there are enough beginning farms to replace those that exit farming. Between 2005 and 2014, the share of beginning farms generally declined across all farm sizes, though overall farm numbers were relatively steady during this period. A beginning farm is one where all operators have 10 years or less farming experience. Very-low sales farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $10,000—had the most beginning farms across these years, but also saw the greatest decline: from 27 percent in 2005 to 24 percent in 2014. By comparison, the share of beginning midsize farms—those with GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999—hovered around 9 percent during this period. In 2014, that represented about 12,000 midsize farms. This chart and the factors affecting these results appear in the ERS report The Changing Organization and Well-Being of Midsize U.S. Farms, 1992-2014, released October 2016.

Dairy farming offers profits, but also financial risks

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On average, larger dairy farms earn higher profits than smaller farms, spurring a steady shift of cows and production to larger operations. Between 2011 and 2015, farms with at least 1,000 milk cows earned the highest average rates of return on equity (ROE), a measure of profitability that captures the return to the capital that farmers have invested in the business. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture (the latest data), these farms accounted for nearly half of all cows. By comparison, farms with less than 100 cows generally had negative average ROE between 2011 and 2015, but accounted for only 17 percent of all cows in 2012. Average ROE data can mask variation at the farm level: some farms are profitable and others are not. Low and negative ROE indicate that dairy farmers could earn more by investing their money elsewhere. Dairy farming carries financial risks for farms in all herd size classes. For example, ROE rose in 2014 as the prices that farmers receive for their milk rose to well over $20 per hundredweight of milk, but then fell sharply the following year as monthly milk prices declined by about 30 percent. This chart updates data from the ERS report Changing Structure, Financial Risks, and Government Policy for the U.S. Dairy Industry, released March 2016.

Million-dollar farms accounted for over half of production in 2015

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Agricultural production has been shifting to larger farms for many years. Farms with over $1 million in gross cash farm income (GCFI) accounted for half of the value of U.S. farm production in 2015, up from about a third in 1991. Most million-dollar farms (90 percent) are family farms; only 10 percent are nonfamily farms. Larger million-dollar farms (over $5 million in GCFI) nearly doubled their share of production between 1991 and 2015. Smaller million-dollar farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999) increased their share from 19 percent to 29 percent. This marks a shift in the share of production from small farms (GCFI under $350,000). Small farms accounted for 46 percent of production in 1991; by 2015, they accounted for less than 25 percent. Farmers who take advantage of ongoing innovations to expand their operations can reduce costs and raise profits because they can spread their investments over more acres. This chart appears in the ERS report America's Diverse Family Farms, 2016 Edition, released December 2016.

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