Beginning, Limited Resource, Socially Disadvantaged, and Female Farmers

Since the 1990s, America's beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource farmers and ranchers have been eligible to receive benefits from a variety of Farm Act programs. These farm groups are targeted in Farm Bill provisions under Titles I (Commodities), II (Conservation), V (Credit), VII (Research), XI (Crop Insurance), and XII (Miscellaneous). A summary of the current Farm Bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, illustrates changes in programs and provisions that apply to the farmers and ranchers who are specifically targeted in the current legislation.

Beginning Farmers

A beginning farmer is someone who has materially and substantially participated in the operation of any farm or ranch for 10 years or less. For statistical purposes, ERS defines a beginning farm as one on which all operators are beginning farmers. Some USDA programs—such as beginning farm operator education programs—are available to beginning farmers even if there are more experienced operators who also work on the farm. Other USDA programs only provide benefits or services to beginning farmers if all farm enterprise operators are beginning farmers.

According to the 2016 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, almost 17 percent of the approximately two million family farms were beginning farms (See "Characteristics of Farm Operator Households by ERS Beginning Farm Definitions, 2016" in the Farm Household Income and Characteristics data product). Beginning farms were smaller, on average, than more established farms; in 2016 they produced about 10 percent of the total value of farm output.

Beginning farm principal operators tend to be younger, with an average age of 49.1 compared to 61.9 for established farm principal operators. More than a third of beginning farm principal operators (36.2 percent) had a 4-four year college degree or higher, compared to 26.8 percent of established farm principal operators. While beginning farm households earned less income from the farm, they earned more from off-farm activities than established farm households and had a higher average total household income ($131,176 compared to $115,274 in 2016). 

Limited-Resource Farm Households

Limited-resource farm households are defined as having low farm sales for 2 years and low household income for 2 years. In fiscal year 2020, low farm sales means direct or indirect gross farms sales not more than $180,300. Low household income means that current-year income falls below the national poverty level for a family of four with two children, or is less than half of the county median household income.

About 7 percent of principal operator farm households were classified as being in the limited-resource classification in 2016 (see the table "Characteristics of principal farm operator households, by limited-resource farms, 2016," in the Farm Household Income and Characteristics data product). Limited resource farms on average are smaller than other farms (having an average of 209 acres versus 411 acres). Principal operators of limited resource farms are also older (average principal operator age was 65 versus 59 for other farms) and more often indicated they were not in the paid workforce, suggesting they may be retired. On average, limited resource farms lost money farming on a cash basis (losing $11,890) compared to positive farm income for non-limited resource farms ($27,527).

Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act defines a socially disadvantaged group as one whose members have been subject to racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities. USDA regulations further define socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (SDFRs) as belonging to the following groups: American Indians or Alaskan Natives, Asians, Blacks or African Americans, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and women. The 2018 Farm Act includes dedicated funding providing increased cost share, loss compensation and loan assistance to SDFRs, as well as provisions to incentivize research on issues faced by SDFRs.

According to a GAO analysis of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, SDFRs accounted for 41 percent of all producers. Of these SDFRs 88.3 percent were women of any race, 8.1 percent were Hispanic, 4.2 were American Indian or Alaska Native, 3.3 percent were Black or African American and 1.6 percent were of Asian descent. In 2017, 30 percent of all farms were SDFR farms - meaning a SDFR was the principal operator. On average, SDFR farms were smaller and brought in less revenue than non-SDFR farms in 2017. These SDFR farms operated 21 percent of all acres and produced 13 percent of the total market value of production.

Women Farmers

The USDA Farm Service Agency targets a portion of all its loan funds to historically underserved farmers and ranchers, including women. Female principal operators accounted for 13 percent of farms in 2016 (see the table "Characteristics of principal farm operator households, by gender, 2016," in the Farm Household Income and Characteristics data product). The number of female principal operators has increased significantly since 25 years ago, when less than 5 percent of principal farm operators were women.

Women were principal operators (having primarily responsible for the day-to-day operation of the farm) of about 256 thousand farms in 2016. An additional 565 thousand female operators contributed to operating farms as second or third operators. Second and third operators provide added focus on farm business management relative to production management skills that the principal operator possesses. Female principal operators were older on average than their male counterparts (61.6 years versus 59.5 years). About 40 percent of women principal operators were 65 or older in 2016. Additionally, 28 percent of female operators reported that they were not currently in the paid workforce.

Women were over-represented as a share of principal operators on beginning farms and limited resource farms. Women were principal operators of 19 percent of beginning farms, versus 11 percent of established farms. Women were principal operators of 27 percent of limited resource farms compared with 11.5 percent of non-limited resource farms.