Are most farms still family farms?

This is the second in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 2: Most farms are still family farms.

This is a claim I should never have put forth in the first place, because I have no reason to believe it, and nowhere near the experience to be able to say how likely it is to be true or false.

I grew up on a family farm, surrounded by family farms, so it feels true. But I don’t know whether my experience is anomalous or not.

For this article, I’ll define the claim as meaning that more than half of farms by number are family farms, and that they represent more than half of the agricultural production of the country. (Yes, these are two separate claims, and will be dealt with separately where possible.)

When I tried to research this claim, I came across various barriers. For example, the 2011 Statistics Canada report on agricultural demographics contains lots of information but doesn’t anywhere seem to address the question of how many family farms there are, their proportion of farming (either by a count of farms or by acreage), or anything like that. A 2012 article in the Globe and Mail discussing the same StatsCan census information claims that the number of family farms has decreased by 10% and the average size has increased by 7%. This suggests to me that family farms don’t look like what we are used to thinking of. But it doesn’t define “family farm”, and doesn’t tell us what proportion of farms are family farms, by number or acreage.

Looking at our southern neighbours, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2015 that 97% of farms are family-owned, and 88% are “small family farms” (annual gross cash income less than $350k. So the original meme, which came from the US, is almost certainly true, at least regarding number of farms. Again, I didn’t see data on proportion by acreage.

A 2016 article in the journal World Development looks globally. (This article is dated November 2016, which seems odd given that it is now only September 2016. I’m guessing the electronic version comes out early, and is dated to when the print version is due to come out.) They find that, worldwide, 98% of farmers are family farmers, and they hold 68% of farming land. So far so good. They don’t directly report on Canada’s numbers, but Figure 1 in the article seems to suggest that in Canada, between 40% and 60% of farms are family farms:

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each ...

Figure 1. 

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each country.


But one caveat for conclusions from this study is that the authors acknowledge a broad lack of consensus about what the term “family farm” means. Different countries define it differently. Does it mean a farm owned by a family? That would, conceivably, mean any farm that is not a publicly-traded corporation. (My own family’s farm is a privately-held corporation. Would it count?) Does it mean a farm that has been operated by members of the same family for more than one generation? And what does it really tell us about the economic structure of farming? Many farmers contract their production to food manufacturers. Consider a family farm producing potatoes for a potato-chip factory. If the farm’s business is dependent on that factory, would its effect on our society be closer to a family farm or to a comparable farm directly owned by a corporation?


I’m afraid the conclusion for this one is far less definite than I’d like. Worldwide, the lcaim seems definitely true. In North America, the claim seems definitely true. In Canada, the most specific information says we have between 40% and 60% family farms, which sounds like a toss-up to me.

What’s important about this claim? I think there are two aspects. One, more social or nostalgic, is an image of the rustic hayseed producing food because that’s what the family has done for generations. I think this side of farming is declining: the stats do say that acreage is increasing, meaning that all farms – family-run or otherwise – rely on technology to work more land. The other is the independence of farming from the sort of large-scale corporate interests that reduce consumer choice and affect our health and economy in ways we don’t always want. I cannot say where we are on this scale.

I’m sorry to leave you with such an open, unsatisfying conclusion. But better that than pretend to know something I don’t actually know.

If anyone has better data on this, please let me know. I’d love to have a clearer perspective on this issue.

If family farms – whatever that means – are important to you, the best way to express that is to support them as directly as possible. Farmers markets. On-farm stores.

Eagle Creek Farms

In fact, if you live in or would like to visit central Alberta, why don’t you check out Eagle Creek Farms? The farm I grew up on currently produces seed potatoes in a wide range of varieties, from plain white to blue to candy-cane and more, for gardeners across Canada. It also has community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions for both summer and winter, as well as a flower and vegetable U-pick patch during the summer, and a wide variety of mazes – including several acres of corn and sunflower mazes. My great-grandad, Tope Mills, first moved out to the area, and my family has been farming there ever since. Right now, my dad, Stan, and my brother, John, are working hard to keep the farm running. Mail-order potatoes, U-pick flowers, and CSA are all ideas that would surprise Tope, I think. But the basic idea of feeding people and supporting a family in a beautiful rural setting hasn’t changed all that much.



2 Responses to “Are most farms still family farms?”

  1. Ubi Dubium Says:

    Yes, my first thought was “how do you define a family farm?” And also how do we define “most farms”? Is it the most by number of farms, by total acreage under cultivation, by production, or by income? If 97% of the land is farmed by just a few big conglomerates, and the other 3% is farmed by hundreds of small farms owned by families, we could truthfully say that “most farms” are family farms without saying anything substantive about the actual state of agriculture.

    And we’re putting an assumed value judgment in here, that family farms are automatically “better”. Is a small farm owned by a corporation growing artisanal lettuces for high-end restaurants better or worse than a huge farm owned by a family for three generations growing potatoes for Frito-Lay? How does either of those compare to a mid-size farm owned by a cooperative working on sustainability and biodiversity? I don’t think we can just jump to a “family farm = good” conclusion.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Definitely. I have a personal bias toward what *I* think of as a “family farm”. But until we have concrete definitions that can be used in a wide survey, we cannot really say much.

    I do value smaller producers over larger producers, as a matter of economic diversity and avoiding the abuses that can occur under capitalism in situations of monopoly or near-monopoly. And I value the sense of community that comes from a large number of small producers neighbouring each other, and supporting each other in the myriad ways I witnessed growing up.

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