We get asked frequently at Farm Aid what a family farmer really is, how to spot a factory farm, or if someone can be both a family farmer and run a factory farm. We also receive questions from farmers themselves who want to know if we consider them a family farm or a factory farm. You name it — we’re asked it.
At Farm Aid, we consider these questions seriously. After all, our mission is to keep family farmers on their land. So, what do we mean when we say family farmer? How do we identify a factory farm? Is there any real definition to these terms?
No Clear Lines in the Soil
In one sense, there’s not. As farming in the United States becomes increasingly consolidated and industrialized, the face of agriculture is rapidly changing. Terms like “family farm” and “factory farm” are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and the lines distinguishing between one kind of farming and another are readily blurred.
For example, 98% of all the 2.2 million farms in the United States meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of a “family farm.” USDA considers a “family farm” any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and his or her relatives: that is, by a family.
But this does little to characterize most family farms or the threats they face. For example, a farm itself is defined by USDA as any operation selling $1,000 or more of agricultural products in a year. Plenty of people take issue with even this definition, since it’s decades old—$1,000 today isn’t nearly what it was when this threshold was first created. Beyond that, it allows for nearly anyone who’s dabbling in growing food or raising livestock for sale, regardless of whether they consider farming their primary occupation, to be classified as a farmer. In fact, over 1.3 million farms counted by USDA are operations where the owner is not looking to make a living from farming. That means only about 900,000 US farms are operated by full-time farmers who derive their livelihood from the land.
Meanwhile we are rapidly losing our full-time farmers from our landscape. Since the 1970s, the number of farms in America has dropped by nearly a quarter. Most of these were midsized family farms growing grain or raising livestock—sectors that were, and still are, becoming increasingly dominated by fewer, larger farms. This concentration has historically squeezed profit margins for family farmers, forcing them to “get big or get out.” The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that 80,000 midsized farms were lost since 2002. Meanwhile, the biggest farms got larger and more industrialized, with just 6% of farms producing 75% of our food. These dynamics reflect a system designed to promote only the biggest and most industrialized of farms, frequently at the expense of family farmers, our economy, health, and the environment.
As new financial pressures mount and sectors reorganize, many family farmers find themselves trapped in a system they would otherwise reject. They often lament that most people misunderstand what it truly takes to farm in the United States, feeling pressured into industrial practices that harm themselves, our soil and water, our food itself and the economies that support them.
I’ll say first that Farm Aid has a keen understanding of these dynamics, and works daily to provide resources for farmers in both crisis and transition. Our mission is to keep family farmers on their land, and our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline and Farmer Resource Network are there to help all family farmers. We’re not here to draw lines in the sand—not because we’re afraid of a little controversy, but because doing so would oversimplify the nature of agriculture in today’s world.
Our vision is not just for the farm itself, but for the whole food system. We still find it incredibly meaningful and important to distinguish between the industrial system that dominates agricultural production in the United States, and our vision for a family farm-based food system.
Defining Factory Farms and the Industrial Food System
The term “factory farm” is often used interchangeably with concentrated animal feeding operation, more commonly referred to as a CAFO. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies CAFOs as large livestock facilities that raise animals in confined settings. According to EPA, these facilities “congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.” The EPA designates 19,149 U.S. farms as CAFOs, though it estimates hundreds of thousands more facilities that confine animals, but are not large enough to be classified as CAFOs, exist in the United States. These operations produce the bulk of our meat, poultry and dairy in the United States.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that CAFOs leave staggering bills behind for taxpayers, including:
- $26 billion in reduced property values from odor and water contamination;
- between $1.5 billion and $3 billion annually in drug-resistant illnesses attributed to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production;
- $4.1 billion in soil and groundwater contamination from animal manure leakage.
Yuck. These externalized costs mean that the prices paid at the grocery store are not reflective of the true costs of industrial meat production to our environment and public health. Furthermore, the very powerful corporations who dictate the sorts of production practices that are responsible for these costs are not made to foot the bill.
While the term factory farm is restricted to livestock production, large-scale industrial food production dominates all sectors of agriculture, including livestock, but also row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat and our many fruits and vegetables. Over half a century of research indicates that factory farms and other large-scale industrial farms have many negative effects on the communities that house them, including greater income inequality (meaning the rich get richer while the poor get poorer), lower community employment, population decline, increased crime and social conflict, increased need for public social services, unstable family units, and diminished civic participation, to name a few.
While USDA statistics suggest most of these operations are family farms, it is likely that the family farmers caught in the industrial food system do not enjoy full ownership or control over their farm operations and managerial decisions—something many experts cite as critical elements in defining a family farm. Among the largest threats to their power are contract arrangements with large agribusinesses that dictate their decisions, farm management practices and debt requirements.