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Number of U.S. farms continues slow decline as farm size slowly rises; overall land used remains constant

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

After peaking at 6.8 million farms in 1935, the number of U.S. farms and ranches fell sharply through the early 1970s. Rapidly falling farm numbers in the mid-20th century reflect the growing productivity of agriculture and increased nonfarm employment opportunities. Since then, the number of U.S. farms has continued to decline, but much more slowly. In 2021, there were 2.01 million U.S. farms, down from 2.20 million in 2007. With 895 million acres of farmland nationwide in 2021, the average farm size was 445 acres, only slightly greater than the 440 acres recorded in the early 1970s. This chart appears in the ERS data product Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, updated June 2022.

Contracts are common in animal and crop production

Friday, April 29, 2022

In 2020, agricultural contracts governed the production of about 33 percent, by value, of all U.S. farm commodities. A contract is a legal agreement between a farmer and another person or firm to produce a specific type, quantity, and quality of crops or livestock. Farmers use contracts, with set pricing (or a pricing formula) or fees, instead of traditional cash sales to manage income risks. USDA, Economic Research Service identifies two types of agricultural contracts: marketing and production. Under marketing contracts, the ownership of commodities stays with the farmer during production. The contracts set a price or a pricing formula, product quantities and qualities, and a delivery schedule. Under production contracts, the contractor generally owns the commodity and provides inputs, services, production guidelines, and technical advice to the farmer. Relative to overall commodity production, marketing contracts and production contracts are equally used. However, crop farmers are more likely to use marketing contracts and livestock producers typically use production contracts. Marketing contracts represented 23 percent of all crop production in 2020. More than half the value of production of sugar beets, peanuts, and fruits was produced under marketing contracts in 2020, and less than 20 percent of soybeans, corn, and wheat production fell under marketing contracts. Production contracts represented 36 percent of all livestock production, including 76 percent of poultry and egg production, and 74 percent of hog production. Although marketing contracts are mostly used for crop production, a small percentage of poultry and eggs was produced using marketing contracts. Likewise, a small percentage of vegetable production occurred under production contracts even though most production contracts cover livestock. This chart was drawn from the Farm Structure and Contracting topic page, updated March 2022.

Small family farms produce majority of poultry and eggs, and hay

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

In 2020, most of the values of cotton (62 percent), dairy (73 percent), and specialty crops (57 percent) were produced on large-scale family farms. USDA defines a family farm as one in which the principal operator and related family own the majority of the assets used in the operation. Large-scale family farms are those with an annual gross cash farm income of $1 million or more. However, small family farms produced the bulk of hay production (59 percent) and poultry and egg output (49 percent) in 2020. Poultry operations are often classified as “small” because most output is under a production contract arrangement, with a contractor paying a fee to a farmer who raises poultry to maturity. Additionally, more than one-quarter of beef production occurred on small family farms that generally have cow/calf operations. Another 42 percent of beef production occurred on large-scale family farms, which are more likely to operate feedlots. Midsize family farms production ranges from 8 to almost 30 percent of value of production. Nonfamily farms produce the smallest share of the value of production for most commodities. Of all the commodities, nonfamily farms contribute the most to specialty crop production at 27 percent. This chart is found in the Economic Research Service report, America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2021 Edition, released December 2021.

Larger U.S. dairy farms tend to be more profitable than smaller dairy farms

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

According to the most recently available data, in 2016, 62 percent of U.S. dairy farms with at least 2,000 cows generated gross returns that exceeded total costs, compared with 43 to 44 percent of farms in the two next-largest classes (500-999 cows and 1,000-1,999 cows). In the smallest classes (10-49 cows and 50-99 cows), less than 10 percent of farms generated positive net returns. Total costs include cash expenses such as those for feed, fuel, and hired labor, but they also include estimates of the costs of the farm’s capital and of the family labor provided to operate the dairy farm. A farm that does not cover total costs can continue to operate, and to provide a living for the family operating the farm, if it covers cash expenses and the costs of the family’s labor (total cost except capital recovery). For example, while about 20 percent of farms with 100-199 cows earned positive net returns in 2016, 46 percent earned enough to cover all cash expenses and to provide a living for the farm family. However, these farms did not earn enough to cover annual costs of capital recovery (the replacement value of the capital, such as equipment and structures, used on the farm). Continued operation makes financial sense for those farms until the cash expenses of maintaining an aging plant rise enough to cut into the family’s income from dairy farming. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020. It also appears in the August 2020 Amber Waves feature, Scale Economies Provide Advantages to Large Dairy Farms.

Share of off-farm income varies by commodity specialization

Monday, April 26, 2021

Farm households obtain income from farming and off-farm income, such as salaries, pensions, and investment interest. Among farm businesses, off-farm wage and salary income varied by commodity specialization. For general crops, beef cattle, and poultry operations, average off-farm wage and salary income contributed more than half of total household income. Dairy operations, by comparison, averaged $37,339 in off-farm wage and salary income, the lowest of any commodity. Dairy operations require extensive and ongoing time commitments, so managing a dairy farm rarely permits an operator to work many hours off-farm. As a result, dairy farm households relied primarily on income from the operation, an average of $148,831 in 2019. This chart is based on data from the ERS data product ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, updated December 2020.

Nonoperator landlords residing within 50 miles of their land owned 67 percent of rented acreage in 2014

Monday, March 29, 2021

Errata: On April 1, 2021, the title was revised to include nonoperator landlords. The text citing total rented farmland acreage owned by those residing within 200 miles of their farmland was corrected to 83 percent. No other data were affected.

In 2014, 39 percent of farmland acreage in the 48 contiguous States was rented. Of this share, 80 percent was owned by landlords who did not operate the farms. ERS researchers examined the data obtained from the 2014 Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) survey to study the characteristics of nonoperator landlords and their tenants in the 25 most important agricultural States by cash receipts. The study found that nonoperator landlords residing within 50 miles of their land owned the majority (67 percent) of rented farmland acreage in 2014. Eighty-three percent of total rented farmland acreage is owned by those who lived 200 miles or less from their farmland. Total rented acres progressively declined as the distance between landlords and tenants increased. Those living more than 1,000 miles away, for example, owned only 4 percent of total rented farmland acreage. While some nonoperator landlords lived in major U.S. coastal cities, most lived in major cities in agricultural States. Nonoperator landlords were also more likely to be retired farm operators or descendants who inherited agricultural land, rather than investors from more distant parts of the country. Nonoperator landlords who lived farther away from their rented land tended to have larger holdings than those who lived nearby. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Absent Landlords in Agriculture – A Statistical Analysis, released March 2021.

Corn, soybean farmers covered part of their production with futures, options, and marketing contracts in 2016

Monday, March 22, 2021

In 2016, corn and soybean producers accounted for about 93 percent of future and options contracts used by U.S. farmers and 60 percent of all production covered by marketing contracts. With a futures contract, a farmer can assure a certain price for a crop that has not yet been harvested. An options contract allows a farmer to protect against decreases in the futures price, while retaining the opportunity to take advantage of increases in the futures price. While futures and options contracts are usually settled without delivery, marketing contracts arrange for delivery of a commodity by a farmer during a specified future time window for an agreed price. Farmers who use these risk management options frequently use more than one contract type. On average, farms that used futures contracts covered 41 percent of their corn production and 47 percent of their soybean production in 2016. Shares were relatively similar for marketing contracts, which covered about 42 percent of corn and 53 percent of soybean production. By comparison, corn and soybean farmers covered a little more than 30 percent of their production with options contracts for both commodities. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report, Farm Use of Futures, Options, and Marketing Contracts, published October 2020.

Larger corn and soybean farms used more futures, options, and marketing contracts in 2016

Friday, November 13, 2020

U.S. farmers can use a variety of market tools to manage risks. With a futures contract, the farmer can assure a certain price for a crop that has not yet been harvested. An option contract allows the farmer to protect against decreases in the futures price, while retaining the opportunity to take advantage of increases in the futures price. Futures and options usually do not result in actual delivery of the commodity, because most participants reach final financial settlements with each other when the contracts expire. In a marketing contract, by contrast, a farmer agrees to deliver a specified quantity of the commodity to a specified buyer during a specified time window. Corn and soybean farms account for most farm use of each of these contracts, and larger operations are more likely to use them than small. With more production, larger farms have more revenue at risk from price fluctuations, and therefore a greater incentive to learn about and manage price risks. Fewer than 5 percent of small corn and soy producers used futures contracts, compared with 27 percent of large producers. Less than 1 percent of small corn and soy producers used options, compared with 13 percent of large producers. And about 19 percent of small corn and soy producers used marketing contracts, compared with 58 percent of large producers. This chart is based on data found in the Economic Research Service report, Farm Use of Futures, Options, and Marketing Contracts, published October 2020. It also appears in the November 2020 Amber Waves feature, “Corn and Soybean Farmers Combine Futures, Options, and Marketing Contracts to Manage Financial Risks.”

Organic dairy farms had higher costs, but also higher gross returns, than conventional farms in 2016

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Organic dairy production costs were substantially higher than those for conventional dairy in 2016—about 50 percent higher per hundredweight (cwt) of milk produced. Production costs include operating costs for feed, energy, and bedding, as well as the costs of capital and of the paid and/or family labor provided to the farm. Organic production costs were highest among farms with 10-49 cows at $48.87 per cwt, while production costs on conventional farms of that size were $33.54. Among farms with 100-199 cows in the herd, organic production costs amounted to $35.82 per cwt, while conventional farms in that category reported lower costs of $23.68. However, organic operations received much higher prices for their milk—organic gross returns per cwt of milk produced were about twice the gross returns realized by comparably sized conventional operations in 2016. With higher costs, but much higher gross returns, small organic dairy farms realized higher net returns on average than small conventional farms. (Net returns are the difference between gross returns and costs.) This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report, Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020. It also appears in the September 2020 Amber Waves finding, “Organic Dairy Farms Realized Both Higher Costs and Higher Gross and Net Returns Than Conventional Dairy Farms.”

Average net returns of large dairy operations exceeded those of farms with smaller herds between 2005 and 2018

Friday, August 14, 2020

Large dairy operations have significant financial advantages over small and midsized farms, primarily because of lower average production costs per pound of milk produced. Therefore, larger farms can earn profits during times when smaller farms bear losses. In every year between 2005 and 2018, average net returns increased with herd size and returns for herds of 1,000 head or more (the largest class for which the Economic Research Service (ERS) publishes annual estimates) exceeded those for all other herd sizes. While net returns fluctuate from year to year, farms with 1,000 head or more generated positive net returns of $1.12 per hundredweight on average between 2005 and 2018. These farms had positive net returns in 10 out of 14 years. By contrast, the smallest herd sizes (50-99 head and 100-199 head) never covered total costs, so their net returns were negative in every year. While some farms in each size class realize positive net returns, these class averages indicate that most small and midsize farms face persistent financial pressures. The persistent differences in net returns have led to structural changes in the dairy industry, with cows and production shifting away from smaller farms and toward larger ones. This chart appears in the ERS report, Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020. It also appears in the Amber Waves feature, “Scale Economies Provide Advantages to Large Dairy Farms.”

The number of hogs sold or removed per farm increased from 1998 to 2015

Friday, July 31, 2020

Contract operations (where the hog owner pays a per-unit fee to producers to care for the animals) sold or removed an average of 8,625 hogs per farm in 2015, an increase of about 3,500 from 1998. By comparison, non-contract operations (where producers own the hogs they raise) sold or removed an average of 5,217 hogs per farm in 2015, an increase of about 3,700 from 1998. The removal, or depopulation, of hogs from farms has distinctly different effects on contract operations and non-contract operations. Contract operations do not incur lost value from inputs invested in depopulated herds, whereas non-contract operations stand to bear depopulation and disposal costs as well as the entire costs of foregone hog sales, including costs associated with inputs (such as feed costs) that have already been incurred. While this research predates the COVID-19 pandemic, it can provide insight into potential impacts of depopulation due to the closing of processing hog plants during the COVID-19 pandemic. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service report, U.S. Hog Production From 1992 to 2009: Technology, Restructuring, and Productivity Growth, released October 2013.

Large dairy operations realized gross returns that exceeded total costs

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Large dairy operations have significant financial advantages over small and midsized farms, primarily because of lower average production costs per pound of milk produced. Therefore, larger farms can earn profits during times when smaller farms bear losses. In 2016, average total costs of milk production fell from $33.54 per hundredweight among farms with 10-49 cows to $20.85 among farms with 200-499 cows. The latter costs were 21 percent higher than the average costs realized at the largest farms—those with at least 2,500 head. Larger herds realized lower gross returns because many are in regions with lower milk prices. Gross returns include milk sales, plus revenues from the sale of culled dairy animals, milk cooperative dividends, and the fertilizer value of manure. Despite their lower gross returns, lower costs led to much larger net returns among larger operations than among smaller farms. In 2016, farms with more than 1,000 head realized positive net returns on average, whereas farms with fewer head realized negative net returns on average. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report Consolidation in U.S. Dairy Farming, released July 2020.

Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The U.S. agricultural workforce consists of a mixture of two groups of workers: (1) self-employed farm operators and their family members, referred to as “unpaid labor” because their remuneration comes out of farm profits rather than a wage; and (2) paid labor such as hired and contract workers that receive wages. Overall, between 2014 and 2018, U.S. farms used about 59 percent operator, spouse, and family labor, compared to 41 percent paid labor. However, farms of different sizes relied on different mixes of labor. Principal operators and their spouses provided most of the labor hours (76 percent) used on small farms, those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 43 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 17 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 74 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Contract laborers were important on very large farms (particularly in fruit and vegetable operations), contributing 20 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

Agricultural consolidation has increased the midpoint acreage for most crops since 1987

Monday, April 6, 2020

Over the past three decades, the midpoint acreage—where half of the acres of a specific crop are on farms that harvest more than the midpoint, and half are on farms that harvest less—has shifted to larger farms for almost all crops. In 1987, for example, the midpoint acreage for corn was 200 acres; it increased to 685 acres by 2017. Four other major field crops (cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat) showed a very similar pattern: the midpoint for harvested acreage increased between 1987 and 2017 by amounts ranging from 166 to 243 percent. The midpoints also increased persistently in each census year, with the single exception of a decline in cotton from 2007 to 2012. Economic Research Service researchers extended the analysis to 10 more field crops and to 40 fruit, tree nut, berry, vegetable, and melon crops. Consolidation was nearly ubiquitous, as the 2017 midpoint acreage exceeded its 1987 level for 53 of 55 crops (the exceptions were lemons and plums/prunes). Consolidation was also substantial—the average 1987-2017 midpoint increase across the 55 crops was 148 percent, and 44 of 55 crops showed at least a 100-percent increase. Finally, consolidation was persistent over time, with continued midpoint increases for 42 crops between 2012 and 2017. This chart appears in the February 2020 Amber Waves feature, “Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture Continues.”

Production contracts dominate hog and poultry production, while marketing contracts are more widely used in crops and dairy

Monday, February 10, 2020

Contracts are widely used in the production and sale of U.S agricultural commodities. Under marketing contracts, ownership of the commodity remains with the farmer during production, with little involvement from the contractor. By comparison, under a production contract, the contractor usually owns the commodity (e.g., the chicks for poultry operations) during production and often provides specific inputs and services, production guidelines, and technical advice to the grower—who receives a contract fee for raising the commodity. Across all commodities, the value of contract production was nearly evenly split between marketing and production contracts in 2018. However, the use of contract types varies sharply across commodities. Most contract crop production (except for seeds and some processing vegetables) used marketing contracts, as did all contract dairy production. In contrast, production contracts were used extensively for the production of hogs and poultry. Some hogs may be raised under a production contract between a grower and an integrator (an intermediary that coordinates production), and then sold by the integrator under a marketing contract with a processor, who slaughters and processes the animal for sale. This chart updates data found in the July 2019 Amber Waves article, “Marketing and Production Contracts Are Widely Used in U.S. Agriculture.”

Contracts are most prevalent in production of poultry, tobacco, hogs, peanuts, and fruits

Monday, October 28, 2019

Contracts are widely used in the production and sale of U.S agricultural commodities. Farmers use contracts to obtain compensation for higher product quality, specify outlets for products, and provide assurance of sales to manage income risk or finance debt. Processors use contracts to gain timely flows of products and greater control over the characteristics and consistency of the products they acquire. Contracts cover relatively small shares of corn, soybean, and wheat production—and those shares have changed little in 20 years. In contrast, most poultry is produced under contract, and what is not produced under contracts between processors and growers is raised in facilities operated directly by processors. These differences between commodities reflect differences in markets and product characteristics. Because corn, wheat, and soybean producers have many potential buyers and can store their crops for long periods, cash markets work well for them. On the other hand, poultry producers make a substantial investment to produce birds that lose value quickly after reaching maturity, and there are usually just one or two local buyers for the product. Facing a risk that, without a contract in place, buyers would be able to force the price down, poultry producers are reluctant to invest in their business without the assurance of a contract. This chart appears in the December 2018 report, America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2018 Edition. It was also highlighted in the ERS’s Amber Waves Data Feature, “Marketing and Production Contracts Are Widely Used in U.S. Agriculture” in July.

Productivity of farms in the Heartland increased over time, but more slowly for smallest farms

Friday, October 11, 2019

Recent ERS research examined productivity trends in the Heartland region, which includes all of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and parts of Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Findings show that the smallest crop farms (less than 100 acres) fell further behind larger farms in terms of productivity between 1982 and 2012. Total factor productivity (TFP)—a measure of the quantity of output produced relative to the quantity of inputs used—grew at similar rates across farm-size classes except for the smallest, which had slower growth rates. (However, data for 2012 reflects a severe drought in the Heartland region that year and so does not follow historical trend lines.) While the TFP for farms in the four largest size categories increased by 47 to 59 percent between 1982 and 2012, TFP for the smallest farms increased by only 17 percent. Some technological advances in recent decades, such as very large combine harvesters and precision agriculture technologies, were not as advantageous for the smallest farms to adopt due to cost. This may help explain why the farm productivity growth of the smallest farms has lagged behind that of larger operations. This trend has resulted in a deterioration of the competitive position of farms in the smallest size category, and has likely contributed to a decline in their share of total output. This chart appears in the December 2018 Amber Waves feature “Productivity Increases With Farm Size in the Heartland Region.”

ICYMI... Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Farms of different sizes rely on different mixes of labor. During the 5 years encompassing 2013–2017, the principal operator and the operator’s spouse provided most of the labor hours (75 percent) used on small farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 44 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 19 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 69 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Small and midsized farms are more numerous, but account for less production overall. Overall, principal operators and their spouses provided 47 percent of the labor hours used on U.S. farms in 2013–17, while hired labor provided 35 percent, and other operators and other unpaid family labor provided another 9 percent of total hours, the same share as contract labor (workers employed by firms hired by the farm). Contract laborers were particularly important on very large farms, contributing over 27 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture. This Chart of Note was originally published April 15, 2019.

Contracts governed one-third of the value of agricultural production in 2017, with a concentration in livestock

Friday, July 12, 2019

Contracts are widely used in the production and sale of U.S agricultural commodities. Contracts provide farmers with a tool for managing income risks. Farmers also use contracts to obtain compensation for higher product quality, specify outlets for products, and provide assurance of sales for debt financing. Processors use contracts to ensure timely flows of inputs and greater control over the characteristics and consistency of the products they acquire. In 2017, 49 percent of livestock were raised under contract agreements—usually between farmers and processors—while contracts governed 21 percent of crop production. The share of crops produced under contract has declined in recent years as farmers turned to other methods for managing risks, such as diversification, hedging through futures markets, and investing in storage. This chart appears in the December 2018 report America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2018 Edition and the July Data Feature of the ERS Amber Waves magazine, “Marketing and Production Contracts Are Widely Used in U.S. Agriculture.”

Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Monday, April 15, 2019

Farms of different sizes rely on different mixes of labor. During the 5 years encompassing 2013–2017, the principal operator and the operator’s spouse provided most of the labor hours (75 percent) used on small farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 44 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 19 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 69 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Small and midsized farms are more numerous, but account for less production overall. Overall, principal operators and their spouses provided 47 percent of the labor hours used on U.S. farms in 2013–17, while hired labor provided 35 percent, and other operators and other unpaid family labor provided another 9 percent of total hours, the same share as contract labor (workers employed by firms hired by the farm). Contract laborers were particularly important on very large farms, contributing over 27 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.