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Unpacking the USDA Economic Research Service's Farm Typology

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Report prepared by Hallie Elrod and Mackenzie Faber

For FrontLine Farming


For as long as the United States has existed as a nation, the size and structure of its farms has played an integral role in its culture, values, and identity. Today, responsibility for defining farm size and structure falls with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS), which defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year” (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2021, p. III).

Taking this broad definition forward, the ERS developed a typology to classify farms into more homogenous groups for reporting and evaluation purposes. This typology is based on three main criteria: the ownership of the farm business, the annual gross cash farm income of the farm business, and the primary occupation of the operator of the farm business (USDA ERS Farm Structure, 2021). Within the typology farms are divided between family and non-family as well as small, mid-sized, and large-scale. The express goal of the typology is to offer a streamlined tool for research and policy making. However, further analysis into the history and data of the typology suggests that it is far from a neutral metric.

In our analysis of the ERS farm typology and the data available on farm size in the United States, we drew three primary conclusions. The first is that the current typology masks a more accurate and representative breakdown of agricultural production in the United States, and contributes to the erasure of the nation’s “smallest” farms. These include nonprofit farms like FrontLine Farming, about which there is limited information despite their significance in their communities. This erasure complicates the ways in which government funds (including subsidies) are allocated, as they may treat all “small” farms equally when their needs may in fact be very different. The second conclusion is that the current data collection methods employed to create this agricultural profile carries significant bias, and pays disproportionate attention to the economic production of farms, rather than the myriad other functions farms perform and require further analysis. Our final conclusion is that the emphasis on family farms and manipulation of the definition to over-represent the number of small farms carries with it an unspoken history of the land theft and settler colonialism and seeks to uphold outdated ideals about the inherent value of family farms. The subsequent value judgments associated with farm size determined by the typology shape the ways in which we conceptualize and talk about U.S. agriculture, therefore carrying significant sociocultural implications. These three primary impacts of the typology all compound each other to create a system of agriculture that is deeply inequitable and in need of diversification. A common thread throughout all three conclusions and the report more broadly is the sheer complexity and inaccessibility of the data farmers and citizens need in order to honestly assess the state of agriculture in the United States. In some cases, important data is obscured through conflicting or incompatible data, and in other cases, it is simply not available at all. In particular, more information is needed from the USDA that clearly explains how government resources are administered according to farm size. Research for this report took several months of analyzing USDA documentation, and yet questions remain about just how the typology works.

This call for transparency is one of several recommendations we suggest based on our findings. Others include simply revisiting the parameters of the typology and adjusting the GCFI limits used to classify farm size, as well as loopholes in family farm definitions and deceiving homogeneity in the nonfamily category. We also recommend greater attention to implicit bias in data collection, including surveys. While this report scratches the surface of the typology, particularly when it comes to its impact on racial and economic disparities, a particularly compelling area for future research would be the ways in which the USDA studies and reports gender diversity on farms. Finally, we suggest more general conscientiousness about how we speak about and romanticize farms. In doing so, we may begin to undo some of the erasure and damage inflicted by modern agriculture in the United States.

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