The Importance of US Farmers

Agriculture is one of the original foundations of US society and has played a key role in North American history. Farmers today play an essential role in the US economy, providing food for domestic consumption and agricultural commodities for international export. Farm products appear on dinner tables, in clothing, in medicine, and in national financial markets. In 2019, farmers contributed over $136 billion to the US gross domestic product. Together with related industries that depend on farm products, including restaurants, food and beverage manufacturing, and food retail stores, food and agriculture contributed $1.109 trillion, or 5.2% of the total US economy.

Farm life has changed throughout US history and continues to be in flux today. Technological developments have increased agricultural efficiency, and production systems have increasingly centered on economies of scale, mechanization, and cheap human labor. Farming communities have also undergone significant change as small, labor-intensive farms with diversified crops have been replaced by industrialized farming of commodity crops and confined animals.

Despite its importance in modern life and its foundational role in US history, farming exists beyond the direct daily experience of many US residents. Nevertheless, the changing fabric of rural communities and trends in farm economics provide important indicators for the health of the nation’s food system and the future of US agriculture.

HISTORY OF FARMING IN NORTH AMERICA

Farming has existed in North America for roughly 10,000 years.[1] Indigenous populations developed sophisticated farming techniques based on regional ecology and climate conditions.[2] Crops were often grown together in mutually beneficial configurations such as maize, beans, and squash, or sunflower, squash, and goosefoot—a seed-bearing plant similar to amaranth. Many Indigenous farming models were cooperative, based on collective land stewardship.

Arriving European colonial settlers brought many of their own crops and farming methods as they established settlements on lands traditionally occupied by Indigenous people. Early US agricultural policy focused on settling and controlling fertile lands that had previously been used by Indigenous groups, altering or erasing traditional Indigenous land management practices and social-ecological interactions.[3] Colonial agriculture was largely subsistence oriented, but developed to include commercial crops such as tobacco, indigo, and rice, and commercial production of indigenous American crops such as maize. Federal laws that preceded today’s Farm Bill paved the way for two centuries of territorial expansion into Indigenous lands via subsidies and land grants that encouraged the formation of colonial settler farms.

By the mid-1800s, the focus of US agriculture had shifted from subsistence farming to commercial farming, aided by the availability of new industrial machinery. Rapid technological and social change in the 1900s accelerated mechanization and industrialization of farming in the aftermath of WWII, greatly increasing commercial production volume per farm.

As industrial farming came to dominate US agriculture in the second half of the twentieth century, agrichemicals and later genetic engineering of crops further altered the character of US farming. Farms grew larger, farm wealth more consolidated, and farm products less varied. In 1900, the average US farm produced five different crops, but by 2000, most produced just one crop.[4] According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the total number of US farms dropped 63% from 1900 to 2000, while average farm size rose 67%.

Industrialization of US agriculture also brought huge social changes to farming. The number of people employed in US agriculture dropped from 41% of the adult workforce in 1900 to 1.9% of the workforce by 2000,[5] and only 1.4% of the US workforce by 2019. Nevertheless, farms, their products, and their workforce continue to be central to the future of the US economy and a permanent fixture of many rural US landscapes.

TYPES OF FARMS IN THE US

As well as growing food crops and animals farmed for food, farmers also supply the textile, leather, tobacco, forestry, and fishing industries. Farmers growing animals may raise chickens, cows, hogs, sheep, fish, or other animals used for food. Crop farmers grow commodity row crops such as wheat or corn, specialty vegetable crops like squash, tomatoes, or leafy greens, fruits and nuts, or inedible crops like cotton. Some crops inedible at harvest are grown especially for processing, such as corn destined for animal feed or high fructose corn syrup and sugar beets that will be processed into table sugar.[6]

Depending on the crops or animals they grow, farmers sell their products domestically to processors, distributors, or retailers. Some farms directly supply institutions such as schools or hospitals or sell directly to consumers through farmers’ markets or community-supported agriculture. Distributors sell products nationally, or export high-value products like soybeans, beef, pork, veal, poultry, nuts, and fruits to international markets. Wherever farm products end up, they are big business for US producers; US agricultural exports are forecast to exceed $177 billion in 2022.[7]

As the main federal body that regulates agriculture and implements programs to support US farmers, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) separates farm commodities into two main categories: field crops and specialty crops.

FIELD CROPS

Field crops include corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum, rice, and other grains. Corn is the most widely produced crop in the US, followed by soybeans and wheat. Ninety million acres are devoted to producing corn in the US, which is used to make animal feed, ethanol biofuels, sweeteners, and breakfast cereals.

The US leads global soybean production and is the second-largest exporter worldwide. Soybeans are the single biggest source of protein in feed for farmed animals worldwide and also represent 90% of US total oilseed production.

Wheat is the third-largest crop in the US by acreage and production value, at over 38 million harvested acres. Varieties include winter, durum, and spring wheat, used in flour, pasta, bread, and many processed food products.

Other field crops include oilseed crops like safflower, sunflower, flaxseed, and rapeseed. Cotton, flax, and hemp are grown as field crops for the textile industry, while tobacco, sugar beets, and peanuts are also considered field crops because of the large-scale, industrialized methods used to harvest them.

SPECIALTY CROPS

The Farm Bill defines as specialty crops many varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, as well as culinary herbs and spices, medicinal herbs, ornamental flowers and shrubs, cut flowers, foliage, and Christmas trees.

Additional Farming Categories

FEED CROPS

Feed crops are field crops that are grown to feed farmed animals. 70% of the soybeans and half of the corn grown in the US are used for animal feed. Other feed crops include sorghum, barley, and oats. Forage crops used to produce roughage for animal feed include alfalfa, hay, clover, and grasses.

ROW CROPS

Many types of crops are planted in fields in rows, but the term row crops refers to crops harvested annually on a large scale by mechanized harvesters. There is some overlap between the definitions of field crops, specialty crops, and row crops. Most field crops such as wheat and corn are row crops harvested by machinery, but some specialty crops like leafy greens and tomatoes are also harvested mechanically as row crops. However, some other commodities such as fruit grown on trees are not considered row crops, despite mechanized methods of harvest.

INTENSIVE ANIMAL PRODUCTION

Intensive animal production includes animal feeding operations (AFOs) and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where animals are kept confined in indoor facilities and not allowed to roam or graze freely outdoors. The vast majority of US meat, egg, and dairy production comes from these industrial facilities. CAFOs are distinguished from AFOs by the number of animals on the property and how farms handle animal waste. Operations are classified as CAFOs if they have over 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cattle, 2,500 swine, or 125,000 broiler chickens, although many large US animal farms house far higher numbers of animals. Farms of any size are considered CAFOs if they discharge liquid animal waste and manure into waterways or artificial waste lagoons. CAFOs are associated with the most significant animal welfare concerns in modern farming are associated with CAFOs.

EXTENSIVE ANIMAL PRODUCTION

Some animal farms raise cattle, sheep, and goats in alternative pasture-based systems, in which animals roam and graze freely within a defined area. Nationwide, this type of ranching uses 528 million acres of private land and an additional 155 million acres of public land. The total amount of land used for extensive animal operations exceeds both croplands and forests in the US.

Alternative, ORGANIC, and VEGANIC FARMS

Alternative and organic farms have increased in popularity since the 1970s. Specialty animal farms often raise heritage and rare breeds of cows, birds, and pigs, or alpacas for fiber and textiles. Similarly, many organic farmers produce heritage vegetables and fruits or manage diversified farms that grow a wide range of food crops.

In organic farming, commodities are produced without the use of chemicals, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers. Organic farms that raise animals are not permitted to use antibiotics or synthetic hormones, although the welfare of animals on organic farms varies widely and is not necessarily improved. In 2019, the USDA reported a 17% increase in organic farms and a 31% increase in sales of organic commodities.

Vegan organic farms, sometimes called “veganic“, stockfree, or stockless organic farms, are examples of a recent agricultural movement that combines organic methods and avoidance of synthetic inputs with a focus on animal-free production. Typical organic farming eschews synthetic fertilizer in favor of natural fertilizers such as animal manure and bone or blood meal, much of which comes from industrial animal farming. Vegan organic farming follows the principles of organic production without animals or their by-products. Vegan organic farms instead use plant-derived composts that do not include manure, slurry, fish byproducts, or worm castings.

HOW MANY FARMERS ARE THERE IN THE US?

There are just over 2 million farms in the US, averaging 444 acres and occupying 897 million acres in total. There are different ways of measuring the number of farmers, but there are around 3.4 million people involved in farm decision-making in the US, many of whom own or operate family farms.

US FARMERS: FACTS AND STATISTICS

The USDA defines a farm as any agricultural business that cultivates and sells at least $1,000 of products annually. 90% of the farms in the US are categorized as small farms, meaning they earn less than $350,000 annually from sales of farm products. Combined, these small farms hold nearly 50% of US agricultural land, but they only account for 22% of overall production. Large-scale farms that earn more than $1 million annually, though markedly fewer in number, generate nearly half of all agricultural value.

Most US farms are owned or operated by families, with only 2.4% of all farms under non-family ownership. Nevertheless, many family farms operate as corporate entities, participating in corporate farming

The size of farms is related to the commodities they produce. Large-scale family farms produce over two-thirds of dairy in the US and over 50% of fruit and vegetable crops. Non-family farms are most prominent in the production of high-value crops, which include tree nuts, greenhouse commodities, and many specialty crops.[8]

Just over one-third of farms have women operators working in some decision-making capacity, and women are the primary decision-makers on 14% of US farms. On 78% of the farms, the female producer was the spouse of the principal farm operator.[9] 

The average age of a farmer in the US is 57 years old and has trended upward since the mid-1970s. A mere 8% of farmers are under the age of 35. Around 17% of farmers report that they plan to retire from farming in the next five years.[10] Despite these trends in age, one-quarter of farmers are relative newcomers to agriculture, having been in the business for less than 10 years. Of the three-quarters of farmers who have been farming for over ten years, only 42% consider farming their primary occupation.

US farming and farm policy bear a long history of structural racism. Due to unequal access to loans, unequal protection of property rights, and state-sanctioned violence against farmers of color, today, over 95% of all US agricultural producers identify as white. Latinx farmers make up only 3% of the farming population, while 1.7% of farmers are Indigenous, 0.6% are Asian, 1.3% are Black, and 0.1% are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

HOW ARE FARMS CLASSIFIED IN THE US?

The USDA classifies farms based on annual revenue, the main occupation of the farmer, and family or non-family farm ownership. Farms are divided into three broad categories based on gross cash farm income (GCFI), which are then further subdivided into small, mid-size, and large farms.[11]

SMALL FAMILY FARMS

Small family farms have a GCFI of less than $350,000. They include farms where the producer has retired but continues small-scale production. This type of farm comprises just over 10% of US farms.

Most small farms depend to some degree on off-farm income. These farmers also work at other occupations, and farming may be a secondary source of income. These off-farm occupation farms make up 41% of US farms.

Farming-occupation farms have producers who work solely at farming, and are further divided into low-sales and moderate-sales farms. Just over 30% are considered low sales, with a GCFI of under $150,000. Only 5% of farms belong to the moderate sales category, which includes GCFI from $150,000 to $349,999.

MID-SIZE FAMILY FARMS

Mid-size farms have a GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999 and represent 5% of US farms.

LARGE-SCALE FAMILY FARMS

Large-scale farms with a GCFI of $1 million or more make up the most limited category of family farms. Very large farms that earn $5 million or more represent less than 0.3% of all US farms.

CORPORATE FARMS

There are just under 50,000 registered corporate farms, the principal owners and operators of which are not related to one another through blood, marriage, or adoption. Although corporate farms are few in number, they tend to be larger, have higher incomes (15% have a GCFI of $1 million or more), and contribute a higher percentage of overall US agricultural production.

AVERAGE FARM INCOMES

Farmers are uniquely vulnerable to weather changes, natural disasters, economic downturns, and supply chain disruptions. Median annual farm income ($83,000) exceeds the median US household income of $68,703.[12] However, for many farmers, this income figure includes income from outside the farm. Most small-scale farmers receive a significant portion of their income from off-farm sources. Mid-size farmers report just under 35% of their income as derived from sources other than farming. In contrast, large-scale farmers receive a much greater proportion of their income directly from farming as a sole occupation. Many farmers may face financial insecurity in upcoming years, as median farming incomes have declined by at least $1,200 over 2020 and 2021 due to supply chain disruptions, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

FARMING’S IMPACT ON US SOCIETY

The work of US farmers is economically significant and crucial to meeting domestic food requirements. However, US farms operate today in an environmentally and socially unsustainable food system that relies heavily on monocropping, industrialization, and human and animal injustice.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS IN US FARMING

Industrial crop and animal production damage the environment by polluting waterways[13] and air[14] with fertilizers and animal waste, depleting soil nutrients, and generating a large portion of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.[15] Animal production systems are particularly problematic due to widespread animal welfare abuses, systemic human rights concerns among agricultural and food chain workers, and widespread environmental harm.

Farmers raising animals have predominantly moved to industrial systems that hold millions of animals in intensive confinement with poor welfare. Farmed animals have been genetically manipulated to grow larger and faster, to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. Intensively farmed animals are slaughtered far before their life expectancy and in large numbers on high-speed slaughter lines to meet high market demand for inexpensive animal products. Very fast slaughter line speeds make it more difficult for slaughterhouse workers to ensure that animals have been successfully stunned prior to slaughter. As a result, some animals are slaughtered while still fully conscious, in violation of the minimal protections offered by US humane slaughter laws.[16] The incidence of improper stunning increases with line speed, and can be difficult to determine.

EXPLOITATION AND DISCRIMINATION IN US FARMING

Vertical integration of farm production, particularly acute in the poultry industry and other parts of the meat sector, disadvantages farmers by removing their agency as producers. Under contracts that allow them little or no control over animal gene stock, feed, housing type, or sale price per pound, farmers are exploited by agribusiness firms as contract workers on their own farms. Similarly, both industrial crop farming and industrial animal processing rely heavily on the exploitation of vulnerable workers who perform their duties in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.[17] These combined patterns of disempowerment and exploitation reduce the overall quality of life in many rural US communities.[18]

The US agricultural system was built on structural racism, and various laws and practices have systematically excluded BIPOC[i] farmers from owning land and benefiting from government funding, debt relief, and other forms of assistance. Black farm owners, who once numbered 14% of all farmers in 1920, have seen their numbers shrink drastically due to economic disenfranchisement and discrimination by federal programs. Black farmers have fought against systematic discrimination in lending practices by the USDA for decades and, in 1999, won one of the largest class-action settlements in legal history. However, despite this win in the courts, most participants in the class action lawsuit never received any monetary payments, and many Black farmers continue to struggle with economic insecurity.

Reparations to Black farmers and land-back initiatives for Indigenous farmers—which seek to purchase privately held land and return it to the control of Indigenous communities—are two proposed solutions for racial inequities in farming. Shifting to sustainable agriculture informed by local ecosystem health and the legacy of traditional Indigenous knowledge and away from high-input industrial monocultures is another proposed mitigation strategy to address the social and environmental damage caused by modern commercial farming.[19]

CONCLUSION

In the past century, US farming has seen rapid shifts in land use, technology, farming practices, farm demographics, and the structure of the farm economy. Farmers have had to adjust to unprecedented degrees of corporate control and consolidation alongside the erosion of rural community wellbeing. As US agricultural output grew during the industrialization of the food system, animals raised for food have experienced abject cruelty and exploitation at great cost to their health and the health of the US populace. Current US farming presents urgent problems of sustainability, animal welfare, and equity.

The future of US farming will depend on a just and sustainable transition for agriculture, rejecting industrial exploitation of animals and land, and dismantling systems of inequality and oppression that have shaped the history of food and agriculture for hundreds of years. Farming today faces the combined threats of an aging farm populace, environmental degradation and climate change, and persistent disparities in access to healthy food. Addressing these critical vulnerabilities will require re-envisioning a US food system built around dignity, justice, and sustainability for all people, all land, and all animals. 


[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.


[1] Christopher E. Doughty, “The Development of Agriculture in the Americas: An Ecological Perspective,” Ecosphere 1, no. 6 (2010): art21, https://doi.org/10.1890/ES10-00098.1.

[2] John P. Hart and Robert S. Feranec, “Using Maize δ15N Values to Assess Soil Fertility in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century AD Iroquoian Agricultural Fields,” PLoS One 15, no. 4 (April 2020), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0230952.

[3] Janie Simms Hipp and Colby D. Duran, “Regaining Our Future: An Assessment of Risks and Opportunities for Native Communities in the 2018 Farm Bill” (Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, June 2017), https://secureservercdn.net/104.238.69.81/jm4.e6c.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Farm-Bill-Report_WEB.pdf.

[4] “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy,” Economic Information Bulletin No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service, June 2005), https://doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.59390.

[5] “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy,” Economic Information Bulletin No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service, June 2005), https://doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.59390.

[6] Christine E. Witt, Jessica E. Todd, and James M. MacDonald, “America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition” (USDA Economic Research Service, December 2020), https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/100012/eib-220.pdf?v=7620.8.

[7] Bart Kenner, Hui Jiang, and Dylan Russell, “Outlook for U.S. Agricultural Trade” (USDA Economic Research Service, August 2021), https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/outlooks/101941/aes-117.pdf?v=2721.2.

[8] Christine E. Whitt, James M. MacDonald, and Jessica E. Todd, “America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition,” Economic Information Bulletin No. 220 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service, December 2020), http://dx.doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.309618.

[9] Christine E. Whitt, James M. MacDonald, and Jessica E. Todd, “America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition,” Economic Information Bulletin No. 220 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service, December 2020), http://dx.doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.309618.

[10] Christine E. Whitt, James M. MacDonald, and Jessica E. Todd, “America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition,” Economic Information Bulletin No. 220 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service, December 2020), http://dx.doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.309618.

[11] The following section draws throughout on Witt, Todd, and MacDonald, “America’s Diverse Family Farms,” https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/100012/eib-220.pdf?v=7620.8.

[12] Witt, Todd, and MacDonald, “America’s Diverse Family Farms,” https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/100012/eib-220.pdf?v=7620.8.https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/100012/eib-220.pdf?v=7620.8 

[13] Colleen N. Brown, Michael A. Mallin, and Ai Ning Loh, “Tracing Nutrient Pollution from Industrialized Animal Production in a Large Coastal Watershed,” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 192, no. 8 (July 2020), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-020-08433-9.

[14] Amy A. Schulz et al., “Residential Proximity to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Allergic and Respiratory Disease,” Environment International 130 (September 2019), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.104911.

[15] Patricia M. Glibert “From Hogs to HABs: Impacts of Industrial Farming in the US on Nitrogen and Phosphorus and Greenhouse Gas Pollution,” Biogeochemistry 150 (September 2020), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-020-00691-6.

[16] Sara J. Shields and A. B. M. Raj, “A Critical Review of Electrical Water-Bath Stun Systems for Poultry Slaughter and Recent Developments in Alternative Technologies,” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 13, no. 4 (2010): 281–299, https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2010.507119.

[17] Brian Stauffer, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants” (Human Rights Watch, September 4, 2019), https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/09/04/when-were-dead-and-buried-our-bones-will-keep-hurting/workers-rights-under-threat.

[18] Brother David Andrews and Timothy J. Kautza, “Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities” (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production), https://www.pcifapia.org/_images/212-8_PCIFAP_RuralCom_Finaltc.pdf.

[19] Timothy E. Crews, Wim Carton, and Lennart Olsson, “Is the Future of Agriculture Perennial? Imperatives and Opportunities to Reinvent Agriculture by Shifting from Annual Monocultures to Perennial Polycultures,” Global Sustainability 1 (2018), https://doi.org/10.1017/sus.2018.11.

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

By Stray Dog Institute

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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