Farm Household Income Estimates

Estimated median total income for farm households increased more than $10,000 in 2019 reflecting increases in both farm income and off-farm income. At the median, household income from farming was positive in 2019 at $296. This is the first year since 1996—when the Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) began—when median household income from farming was not negative. Given the broad USDA definition of a farm (see glossary), many small farms are not profitable even in the best farm income years. Median off-farm income in 2019 was $68,750, while the median total household income was $83,111. (The median is the income level at which half of all households have lower incomes and half have higher incomes. Because farm and off-farm income are not distributed identically for every farm, median total income will generally not equal the sum of median off-farm and median farm income).

 

See the Farm Household Income and Characteristics data product table for statistics on principal farm operator household finances for recent years.

2019 Income Varies by Farm Typology

The USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) developed a family farm typology that considers annual 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 annual 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 from farming 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 intermediateCommercial farms are family farms with $350,000 or more in gross cash farm income, regardless of the occupation of the principal operator.

While the number of U.S. family farms has been relatively stable for the past decade the roughly 2 million U.S. family farms vary significantly in size, level of farm and off-farm income, and total income. See the Farm Household Income and Characteristics data product table on all farms and family farms, by farm size class (gross sales) 1996-2019. In 2019, the median income from farming was $139,016 for households operating commercial farms, and their median total household income was $190,401. Households associated with intermediate farms reported $654 in median farm income and a median total household income of $57,081. Residence farms reported a negative median income from farming of -$800; however, the substantial off-farm income of residence farm households provided them with higher total incomes ($100,593) than intermediate farm households in 2019.

The role of farm income in farm household finances can be further understood by looking at two complementary statistics: the share of households with positive income from farming and, among them, the median percent of total household income derived from farming. Farm income is a small share of total annual income of most farm households operating residence farms, is a secondary source of income for most households operating intermediate farms and is typically a primary source of income for those operating commercial farms. In 2019, 45 percent of residence farms had positive income from farming, and at the median (among those with positive income from farming) that income contributed 6 percent to their total household income. For intermediate farms, 53 percent had positive farm income, which at the median represented 20 percent of their total household income. Finally, 84 percent of commercial farms had positive farm income in 2019, and farm income accounted for 82 percent of their total household income at the median among those with positive farm income. 

Farm operator household incomes are also compared across:

  • Commodity specialization
  • Farm resource region

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). In any given year, production and market conditions will vary for farms that specialize in different commodities. In 2019, the median income from farming was highest among farm households operating farms specializing in rice, tobacco, cotton, and peanuts, and was lowest among those operating farms specializing in beef cattle and general livestock. Differences in household income across commodity specialization may also stem from differences in scale of operation and how much income the operator and other household members can earn off the farm.

Income by Farm Resource Region

Incomes of farm households vary by location as well, largely reflecting regional differences in farm typology and commodity specialization. ERS groups farms into nine resource regions based on soil, climate, and agronomic needs. These conditions cut across State boundaries.

For details on the ERS farm resource regions, see the ERS brochure, Farm Resource Regions (AIB-760, August 2000).

In recent years, only the Northern Great Plains and Heartland have had a consistently positive median farm income for family farms ($7,694 and $5,309, respectively, in 2019). The Heartland has the largest number of farms, the highest value of production, and the most cropland. The region is mainly composed of cash grain and cattle farms. The Northern Great Plains has the most commercial farms and leads production in wheat and barley. Households operating farms in the Fruitful Rim had the highest median total income at $92,030 despite having negative median farm income (-$1,859).