Socially Disadvantaged, Beginning, Limited Resource, and Female Farmers and Ranchers

Since the 1990s, beginning, socially disadvantaged, and limited resource farmers and ranchers in the United States have been eligible to receive benefits from a variety of Farm Act programs. These farm groups are targeted in 2018 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  farmers and ranchers targeted in the current legislation. 

ERS provides economic research and analysis of issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America. For information about how to access USDA programs and services please see USDA's Farmers.gov website. Beginning farmers, including women and veterans, can find additional information on USDA's New Farmers website.

Reports and Amber Waves articles about socially disadvantaged, beginning, limited resource, and women farmers and ranchers can be accessed from the menu on the right side of this page. See also related ERS Charts of Note that highlight current and past research in this area.

Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers

The USDA defines socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (SDFRs) as those belonging to groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice. SDFRs include farmers who are Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Pacific Islander. For some but not all USDA programs, the SDFR category also includes women.

The USDA administers several programs that benefit SDFRs. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency (FSA) makes and guarantees loans to eligible SDFRs to buy and operate farms and ranches. FSA also sets aside a portion of its direct and guaranteed Farm Ownership and Operating Loan funds for SDFRs. The most recent Farm bill (Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) reauthorized and expanded support for SDFRs across a range of USDA programs, including farm credit programs, crop insurance, conservation programs, as well as provisions to incentivize research on issues faced by SDFRs. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides debt relief to socially disadvantaged producers with FSA direct or guaranteed farm loans. 

The 2017 Census of Agriculture collected information about the race and ethnicity of farm producers (up to four producers per farm). According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 1.7 percent of all producers identified as American Indian or Alaska Native only, 0.6 percent identified as Asian only, 1.3 percent as Black or African American only, 0.1 percent as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander only, and 0.8 percent of all producers reported more than one race. In 2017, 3.3 percent of all producers of any race indicated Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. (For more information, see tables 58, 60, and 63 in the 2017 Census of Agriculture.)

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

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 2 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. In 2016, 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 and low household income for 2 years in a row. In fiscal year 2020, low farm sales meant 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).

Women Farmers and Ranchers

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). 

Women were principal (having primary responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the farm) operators  of about 256,000 farms in 2016. An additional 565,000 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.