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Farms Still Family Owned Despite Attrition

January 11, 2021

Nearly all, 98%, of U.S. farms are family owned, according to USDA’s America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition. Dairy sources cite similar numbers for dairy farms. Within both the overall ag industry and the dairy sector, consolidation continues to occur, as financially unsustainable farms— many of which cannot take advantage of economies of scale—sell out, but the vast majority of farms still continue to be family owned.

In addition, 90% of U.S. farms are considered small family-owned operations, defined as generating less than $350,000 annually in gross cash farm income (GCFI).

These farms also account for nearly half of all farmland in the United States and about 20% of the production value. Using the same definition, small dairy farms produce just under 9% of the nation’s milk. With a $20/cwt. milk price, a dairy with 75 cows would generate close to $350,000 in annual milk income.

Large family farms, those that generate $1 million or more in GCFI, are responsible for 44% of U.S. agricultural production but make up less than 3% of farms. In the dairy sector, large family-owned farms account for more than 70% of production. However, a farm with 220 cows, which is still below the national average of 273 cows in 2019, would generate $1,000,000 in milk income using a $20/cwt. milk value.

Data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture shows that since 1997 the number of farms with less than 200 cows has decreased 65%, while the number of farms with 1,000 or more cows has increased 122%. In addition, 2019 USDA data shows that the total number of dairy farms declined 9% vs. 2018, mostly driven by a decline in the number of small farms. In other words, while the number of dairies—particularly small farms—declines, the remaining larger dairies continue to be family owned.

While today’s family farm often looks different than the family farm of yesteryear, for the most part, they continue to be owned and operated by families.

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