Frank Garry agricultural column: Family Farms – What Does This Mean To You?

I am always pleased to hear people express support for family farming. I come from a family farm, and have worked with family farmers on animal health issues throughout my adult life. I most certainly agree that farming can provide a great way of life for a family, and also that farm families are extremely important contributors to our society. I find however that many people do not really understand the spectrum of farms owned by families.

While some prefer to buy products from small family farms, seeing this as the alternative to what they think of as factory farms, this contrast suggests that there is a misunderstanding about what a family farm is. A family farm is owned and overseen by family members, but family ownership of a farm does not say anything about size or scope of the operation.

It may come as a surprise that in the United States about 98 percent of our farms are run by families. Even the small percentage of operations that are corporations include many family farms that incorporate for legal and business reasons while oversight of the operation is still closely monitored by families. Within Colorado almost all of our farms, whether big or small and regardless of what they produce, are owned and run by families. We owe these families gratitude because their hard work is the backbone of our agricultural economy, which remains the second largest component of Colorado’s economy.

Raising food as a commercial venture includes costly inputs: land, water, buildings, equipment, labor and energy. In animal agriculture you also need to own and feed animals. Whatever money you earn when you sell your product, you need to subtract the cost of production before you have made a profit. On small farms you simply don’t sell enough product to make very much profit once you have covered your costs.

All sizes of farms contribute to our food supply and contribute to our economy and our communities. But for farmers to make enough profit to have a modern American lifestyle, they need to be fairly large by most people’s standards. Of the 2 million farms in the US, about 200,000, or about 10 percent, of the farms provide about 85 percent of our food supply. In other words, these are large family farms.

About 75 percent of US farms sell less than $50,000 of food product per year. Most of this revenue goes to pay expenses, so the family farmer breaks even or may lose money. Almost all such farmers have some other source of income to live on or they could not continue farming. These family farms are called noncommercial or lifestyle farms, and they represent what many people may call small family farms. Conversely, about 15 percent of farms sell more than $100,000 of products. Because of input costs it typically takes about $250,000 of revenue to make $40,000 of profit to support the family. These family farms are considered commercial farms where the main source of income is indeed the farming operation.

If, as I do, you believe in family farming as something worth supporting, and if you want to express appreciation for the hard work and value that family farms add to our society, then please also recognize that you are referring to almost every farm in Colorado, regardless of size or type of product they provide.