The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a farm as any place that produces and sells—or normally would have produced and sold—at least $1,000 of agricultural products during a given year. By this definition, the US currently has around two million farms. Here’s how they break down by type and gross cash farm income:

_2019 Farm Size by Type and Gross Cash Farm Income.png

Since Gross Cash Farm Income doesn’t account for expenses, a better indicator of how farmers are doing financially is simply their household income. I have a table for that:

_2019 Farm Household Income.png

Note that most farms lose money (specifically, 54.2% of all farms have “negative income” from farming). Small farms in particular depend on off-farm income to survive. Midsize farm households do okay - but they take in a lot of nonfarm income too. Not counting the nonfarm income, midsize farm households earn about what a mid-career registered nurse makes. Large-scale farmers are doing a lot better On average, their household income is on par with what a typical plastic surgeon earns in a year.

It may seem odd that most farms lose money. Why, then, do so many Americans even own farms? Because they can, given their rather sizable off-farm incomes. I’m guessing that farming is more a labor of love than of economic necessity for many farmers, especially as they reach - or at least get close to - retirement age. And that situation applies to most of them:

_2019 Farm Household Characteristics.png

Why does any of this matter? As a former career counselor, I find occupational data fascinating. But more than that, I think it’s essential we understand the realities of farming life to formulate policies and initiatives to help farmers become better stewards of the environment.


USDA Economic Research Service. America’s Diverse Family Farms (2018)