I had an all-too common experience on a train ride recently from Chicago to Kansas: A couple whom I was having dinner with asked me where I was heading. When I told them I was going to western Kansas where my family farms, they were captivated (they were from Boston) and the conversation immediately turned to agriculture and what it's like farming.
And – as I've come to expect anymore – they wanted me to tell them all about how corporations have taken over family farms and are destroying rural America.
It's a question I get asked constantly, by a wide variety of people. Some are even convinced of America's impending doom because of the loss of the idyllic family farm. The most interesting theory I heard – from a friend who even works in agriculture and is studying for an agribusiness degree – was how the loss of family farms will topple the U.S. just like the Roman Empire.
But according to the USDA, family farms look like they're alive and well.
In their last census of agriculture in 2007, USDA reported that 97% of all farming operations were classified as family farms, meaning the primary owners were related to one another.
Small farmers with sales of less than $250,000 made up 92% of the total, and medium-sized farmers with sales of $250,000 to $999,999 accounted for 6% of farms. Large farmers with sales of more than $1 million accounted for 2% of all farms.
Meanwhile, the number of farmers in the medium-sized category increased 63% over the previous five years while the number of large farms leapt 300%. Even at this level, farming is still a family business. Of these super sized farms, 84% were family owned and operated.
That means that only 16% of the mega farms (less than 3% of total farms in the U.S.) are actually non-family enterprises – the supposed demons that are crippling the tradition of family farming.
While farms may be growing faster today and may look a lot different than they did 75 years ago, one thing hasn't changed – farming's still a family business.
So how did public perception of farming end up wandering off way out into left field? There are probably a number of reasons why it's a little warped and not congruent with reality, but one thing's for sure. When I told the couple on the train from Chicago that family farms are doing just fine, they were overjoyed to hear it.