Background on Farm Structure

Classifying Diverse Farms

Broad descriptions of farms based on U.S. averages can mask variation among different sizes and types of farms. A farm classification—or typology—developed by ERS categorizes farms into more homogeneous groupings for reporting and evaluation purposes. The classification is based largely on annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) of the farm business, the primary occupation of the operator, and ownership of the farm.

The ERS Farm Typology

Typology class and description. Farm size is measured by annual gross cash farm income (GCFI), a measure of the farm’s revenue before deducting expenses that include sales of crops and livestock, Government payments, and other farm-related cash income, including fees from production contracts. 

  • Small family farms (GCFI less than $350,000)
    • Retirement farms. Small farms whose operators report they are retired, although they continue to farm on a small scale.
    • Off-farm occupation. Small farms whose operators report a primary occupation other than farming. The category also includes farms (about 18 percent of off-farm occupation farms) whose operators do not consider themselves to be in the labor force.
    • Farming-occupation farms. Small farms whose operators report farming as their primary occupation.
      • Low-sales farms. GCFI less than $150,000.
      • Moderate-sales farms. GCFI between $150,000 and $349,999.
  • Midsize family farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999)
  • Large-scale family farms (GCFI of $1,000,000 or more)
    • Large farms. Farms with GCFI between $1,000,000 and $4,999,999.
    • Very large farms. Farms with GCFI of $5,000,000 or more.
  • Nonfamily farms. Farms where the principal operator and individuals related to the operator do not own a majority of the business.

The farm typology focuses primarily on the "family farm," or any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator, including relatives who do not live in the operator's household. USDA defines a farm as any place that produced and sold—or normally would have produced and sold—at least $1,000 of agricultural products during a given year. USDA uses acres of crops and head of livestock to determine if a place with sales less than $1,000 could normally produce and sell at least that amount.

Revising the ERS Farm Typology

ERS revised its typology in 2013, updating the original to account for commodity price increases and shifts in production to larger farms. The measure of farm size was also changed from gross farm sales to GCFI. For use in the farm typology, GCFI is a better indicator of the size of the farm business than gross farm sales because it focuses on the revenue actually received by the farm business that can be used by the farm business.

Gross farm sales, in contrast, exclude revenue from other farm-related income and include items that are not revenue to the farm: the value of production accruing to share landlords and production contractors, as well as Government payments accruing to landlords.

What's included in gross farm sales and gross cash farm income
  Gross farm sales Gross cash farm income
Revenue to the farm from:
Crop and livestock sales
Yes Yes
Government payments
Yes Yes
Other farm-related cash income*
No Yes
Value of production accruing to:
Share landlords
Yes No
Yes No
Landlord receipt of Government payments Yes No
*Includes receipts from custom work, machine hire, livestock grazing fees, timber sales, outdoor recreation, production contract fees, etc.

Distribution of U.S. Farms, Value of Production, and Farm Assets

Based on the ERS farm typology and data from the 2016 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), 99 percent of U.S. farms are family farms. The remaining 1 percent are nonfamily farms, which produce 10 percent of the value of agricultural output. Two features of family farms stand out. First, there are many small family farms—those with GCFI less than $350,000—making up 90 percent of all U.S. farms and holding 58 percent of farm assets. Second, most production—68 percent—occurs on the 9 percent of family farms classified as midsize or large-scale. Among small family farms, moderate-sales farms (GCFI of $150,000 to $349,999) account for the highest share of total U.S. production, at 10 percent.

As a group, small family farms account for 23 percent of U.S. value of agricultural production, equal to the share for midsize family farms (also 23 percent).  Small family farms' share of production is higher for specific commodities, especially poultry (59 percent) and hay (50 percent).

Farm Profitability

Profitability—measured here by the operating profit margin (OPM)—is associated with farm size, and varies by farm type. Sixty-two to 77 percent of retirement, off-farm occupation, and low-sales farms are in the "red zone" with an OPM of less than 10 percent, indicating high risk of financial problems. The share of farms in the red zone drops sharply after GCFI exceeds $150,000. Simultaneously, the share of farms in the green zone (with an OPM greater than 25 percent) increases once GCFI exceeds $150,000. Larger farms often can use their resources more productively than smaller farms, generating more profits per dollar of revenue.