Farming 101 – Defining Farm Operations

Over the last several months, I have been floating out thoughts about developing sustainable, regional food systems.  I do not view such systems as a replacement of larger-scale farming and food production, but, instead, as a viable, fast-growing, and profitable alternative to our conventional food system.  Like it or not, we need all sizes of farms.

My intention with this post is to develop clear definitions of commonly used terms that can help advance discussions beyond disagreements over terminology, especially regarding sustainability, safety, and quality, which is where I am focusing my attention.

This a working draft. I will refine definitions and add terms based on constructive feedback from people with different perspectives and deeper knowledge. I will repost with updated language, assuming that is warranted.

Family Farm

“Family farm” seems to be the most misunderstood (and misused) term I have come across. In my mind, in its simplest form it refers to the ownership and operation of a farm, but other things get tagged on, e.g., generational, that confuse the term. Family farm does not connote goodness, sustainability, wholesomeness, etc., since there are family farms of all sizes, employing every type of method in the production of food.

Most family farms are small-scale operations. According to the USDA, family farms represented 98 percent of all farms in the U.S. in 2003 (91% small-scale and 7% large-scale), producing around 86 percent of the value (27% small and 59% large). Another way to look at this is that 73% of production came from large-scale family and nonfamily farms.

Factory Farm

Alternatives to family farms are those run by agribusiness, often referred to as factory farms.  Wikipedia’s definition of “factory farming” is “the practice of raising farm animals in confinement at high stocking density, where a farm operates as a factory — a practice typical in industrial farming by agribusinesses.”  Assuming factory farms are exclusively associated with livestock then it stands to reason that they be classified as either animal feeding operations (AFOs) or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – see definitions below.

What isn’t clear to me is what to call an agribusiness operation growing fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. for consumption by people or animals. Is it a factory farm, as well?

Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs)

Agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.

Other criteria include: animals are confined for at least 45 days in a 12-month period, and there’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season. (Source: U.S. EPA)

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs)

According to the U.S. EPA, an AFO that is determined to be a “significant contributor of pollutants” is re-designated as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).  From there, such operations are categorized by size, which is determined by the number of animals, as well as other criteria (see table).  Approximately 15 percent of AFOs were designated as CAFOs.

Also according to the EPA, “The environmental impacts resulting from mismanagement of wastes include, among others, excess nutrients in water (such as nitrogen and phosphorus), which can contribute to low levels of dissolved oxygen (fish kills), and decomposing organic matter that can contribute to toxic algal blooms. Contamination from runoff or lagoon leakage can degrade water resources, and can contribute to illness by exposing people to wastes and pathogens in their drinking water. Dust and odors can contribute to respiratory problems in workers and nearby residents.


16 responses to “Farming 101 – Defining Farm Operations

  1. One of the interesting things about the CAFO definition is it is based on fundamental mismanagement – on unsustainability. With that in mind, theoretically they could have AFOs that were as tightly packed, or more so, as CAFOs but sustainable if they did things ‘right’. Ugly. This suggests that the definition needs some adjustment.

    Seems like we need a CAFO type definition for grains, fruit, veggies too. They all can be very disastrous and unsustainable in their intensive forms.

    There is the idea that we need Big Ag because small ag can’t produce enough to feed the world. I have an inkling that isn’t the case based on running the numbers in a back of the envelope way. Sometime I would like to play with these numbers more carefully.

    Small farmers operate without subsidies that Big Ag gets. I wonder just how well Big Ag would do if it had to compete on a level playing field.

  2. Cannon Michael

    Had to answer this statement: “Small farmers operate without subsidies that Big Ag gets. I wonder just how well Big Ag would do if it had to compete on a level playing field.”

    The Farm Program pays on the type of crop grown, not on size of operation (“program” crops). The new stricter AGI limits from the current Farm Bill are designed to cut out the large operations. At least make comments that have some basis in fact.

    • Readers: This blog will not publish any comments that attack another reader’s comments in an nonconstructive, confrontational way. There are plenty of places you can find to do that if that is what you are looking for. Thank you.

  3. Aye, that is true, Cannon, subsidies are based on crops. If you look at it closely, almost all of the subsidies go to Big Ag. Last estimate I saw was 96%. The program was designed for Big Ag by Big Ag.

    Subsidies don’t stop at just the direct farm subsidy program. Oil is also heavily subsidized. Since oil is heavily used in large scale conventional agriculture for powering equipment to till, weed, harvest, heat, fertilize and other manners this also amounts to a subsidy. Additionally, it is the low price of subsidized oil that makes long distance transport and thus large scale production, both in agriculture and industry, so cost effective.

    If oil was priced at its more real cost, lets say $8 to $10 per gallon, it would dramatically increase the cost of goods and food. Those farms that use a lot of oil would see a large increase in their production costs. Those who use less oil would see less increase in costs.

    It would be very interesting to see how large scale agriculture looked on a level playing field without subsidies. Either way the American tax payers are paying for the cost of food – at the check out counter or in taxes to subsidize.

  4. On the whole, I think it is a good start. I agree that we need to have all sizes of farms and ranches, however, “family farm” should not be tied to size. I understand the propensity to define them this way, but doing so seems to be driven by romanticism? as opposed to honest definition.
    Yes, most small farms are family owned but many large farms and ranches, AFO’s, CAFO’s etc. are family owned and operated as well. There needs to be some room for large operators to fit into this definition.

    Another area of concern is the use of the term factory farm. I realize it is in vogue, but it really is unduly negative. From the other side of the fence, it is akin to calling CSA and sustainable ag “stone age ag” or something along those lines. How about the term “Modern” to describe standard practices? Along side Traditional or Sustainable I fell this would be accurate and a win-win for both practices.
    I appreciate and share the dedication to open and respectful dialogue, but starting with a term like “factory farming,” that is so negative, defeats the effort before it begins.

    I would also like to address the AFO definition. I think it is appropriate, but it does have one major problem. Using that definition, a cow-calf rancher who dry-lots his cattle in the winter months would be considered a confinement operation. Some tweaking is needed there as well.

    The CAFO definition is problematic. The EPA may define it as such, but as listed here, it relies too much on arguable environmental impacts (which are required to be mitigated). Lets just give it the straight EPA definition without building in other factors. Those can be debated later on.

    On the whole, a good start.

    • Agripundit: That’s the kind of feedback I was looking for. Thank you. Now I need you (or other readers) to help me better understand a couple things.

      1. Why not remove the use of the term “family” altogether, and characterize farms based on objective, non-emotional attributes, e.g., ownership, size, methodologies, crops, etc.? The problem with the “family” is that it conjures up Norman Rockwell images, which might be applicable in some cases, but definitely not all. Besides, taking emotion out of the debate, which I admit is hard to do if you are in sales or marketing (big part of my background), will level the conversation and allow people to understand what is really going on within individual farms, ranches, etc.

      2. I can understand the sensitivity to the use of “factory farm.” What I am wondering is that given the similarities of these highly efficient, tightly managed livestock operations, how are they different than factories in other industries?

      3. Candidly, I think “modern” is a term that can be easily misused, which can easily overstate how advanced a “standard practice” might be. Surely, today’s industrialized farming and ranching operations have evolved considerably, but if any of these practices result in environmentally unsustainable operations, for example, I would not consider them modern or advanced.

      4. Why do I keep hearing direct-to-consumer programs, e.g., CSA, referred to as from the past or ancient or “stone age”? Do you really believe that these retail innovations are retro? If so, can you please explain why. Personally, I think there is tremendous opportunities in further innovating retail channels that focus on bringing sustainably grown food to people up and down the socio-economic ladder.

      5. The AFO definition is owned by the U.S. government, so getting them to make a change like the one you suggest, which seems like a reasonable exception for seasonal considerations, seems like an uphill battle. Good luck!

      6. The CAFO language contained in my post is straight from the EPA. It is not my language, but I do agree with it, as I spent just over a year working in the carbon offset industry where my company worked with numerous dairy farms to mitigate pollutants.

  5. Great dialoque!

    You suggest removing “family” because of the emotion it conjures up. My question is does “factory” not do the same. I think AG would be open to finding a term that better describes “modern” (for the lack of a better term) facilities different than that of a manufacturing plant. We raise our animals we do not manufacture them.
    Yes there are good points on both sides of the “fence”, however the negativity only widens the chasm that separates the sides. Specialized farms can and will be good stewards of the land. We constantly check our soils for nutrients and replace those that are used. Most of Animal Agriculture uses manure and/or compost as a soil nutrient much the same that someone uses it for their garden. Only when natural fertilizer is not available or will not do the job is synthetic fertilizer used.

    • Ray: Thanks for jumping in. Your perspective is important given you’re on-the-ground. If you could use 3-5 attributes to categorize farms and ranches, what would be on your list? For me, I am thinking acres, methods (e.g., conventional, organic, AFO, CAFO, etc.), ownership (e.g., private, public, non-profit), volume (however measured for crop or livestock), customer types (e.g., food processor, restaurants, retail, consumer) and sales. This approach takes out emotional and/or negative terms like “factory” or “family.” Of course, this will only be of value if all such operations are transparent. Thoughts?

  6. #4. I am referring not so much to the marketing model. For those who can make it work, its great! No, more to the production practice, diminished use of technology, etc.

    #5&6 Understand that its from the EPA however, I feel we can keep the environmental effects out of the definition. They are disputable, being mitigated, and as such should be left to debate as opposed to definition.

    #3 I understand your concerns. But again, I think you are injecting some other baggage into the term. I dont think the average person would equate or require a practice to be sustainable to be considered modern. The sustainable term requires a thesis worth of definition on its own.

    #2 The fact that we are raising animals and not assembling products. Morality and ethics is involved as well. While the meathod of raising the animals may look similar to images of a factory to the layman, they are worlds apart.

    I like the idea of removing family from the definition as well. Good idea.

  7. Rob, You might want to check out these links to help with some size definitions. This is how the Vermont Dept of Ag defines Small, Medium and Large Farm Operations.

    Another angle to look at is local vs distant. Local is good for all the reasons commonly cited such as less transportation, more money going back into area economy, etc. That is a big value.

  8. As a single woman living in town, farming my partner’s property in the country, and with a young child who lives with me only part time, I don’t really fit into the definition of “family farmer.” Certainly the IRS doesn’t consider us a family–heck, I don’t even get a tax deduction for the child I bore and help to raise.

    But in terms of what I do and how I do it (grow veggies organically but non-certified–small scale, all locally marketed), I’d say I fall a lot closer to that ideal of “family farm” than “factory.”

    The problem is that the labels don’t allow for the complexity of farm operations and farmer situations. Too, the labels of “hobby” or “lifestyle farm” get my hackles up.

    Many people work a second job to do what I do on my farm–supply my non-traditional family with food and extra money for gas, supplies, maybe a vacation once in awhile. But when that work is done on a farm it’s a hobby?

    I appreciate your post and your interest in working on this topic and engaging in this dialogue.


    • Thanks for the fantastic feedback, Flyingtomato. Like so many things, trying to come up with static definitions is nearly impossible given the spectrum of configurations. Maybe we can start with Commodity v. Specialty Crop Farmers and take it from there. Regardless, there is a lot of work to do.

  9. Longer-term growth objectives may be useful in differentiating types of farms, particularly at the small-farm and regional distribution level.

    Development decisions for the small farm:

    *stay local? (and, literally, what radius defines this?)

    *stay independent?:

    **sell direct-to-consumer, or some degree of wholesale (to final reseller, like retailer or restaurant — a form of direct — or to a wholesaler?)

    **join a marketing co-op? certify organic?

    **assume debt as a matter of expansion? or more or less bootstrap after start-up costs? (debt tends to increase production, revenue requirements, require bigger outlets)

    The type of growth smaller farms are looking for, or will accept, will determine their roles and nature of participation in local initiatives.

    I attended a local food promotion meeting of maybe 20 small, local farmers, and was struck by how much business growth thinking seemed to differ, amongst a group that would’ve seemed quite similar by farm description, and like-minded when talking about various other small-farming issues.

    We were about 90 miles from a huge city, but also in a well-populated region, with various towns all about. What struck me was the pull to sell to the city, either by traveling there, or attracting consumers from there.

    Very few in the group were inclined to acknowledge the business advantages of a small(er) business radius (like customer loyalty and support, less resources focussed on distribution).

    If you’re next to, or in, a huge urban market, that’s great, but do all roads lead to the city (as opposed to developing more literally locally, from wherever you are, urban to rural)?

    From what I’ve seen, business development is often/usually not a well-planned course on the very small farm level. Get the production rolling, find a market, grow more, find more market… A new opportunity comes along, and it may be tried simply because it appeared, e.g. co-op, new (distant) farmers’ market, etc.

    Producers having some sort of intentional growth idea seems important in the direction and qualities of regional/local food development.

    So perhaps there are two general growth models for small farms (in N. America, at least): the Earthbound Farms tiny-plot-to-helicopter-farming all-expansion scenario, or the Polyface Farm grow-it-and-they-will-come, low/no distribution, concentrate on farming approach.

    Essentially, get “big,” or stay “small”?

    Acknowledging this may be…useful, on the way to a reconstituted local food infrastructure.

    • Wow, Mike! Excellent comment with so much to consider. As a person practicing “organic micro-farming,” I like your thinking about staying close to the farm in building your business, something I believe strongly in and would enjoy talking with you directly to explore things. Send me an email if you’re interested (or I might send on anyway).

      By the way, you should consider posting your comment on the Tiny Farm blog to share with your readers. For those reading this, I encourage you to check out Tiny Farm’s blog at


      Rob Smart

  10. Pingback: Farming 201 – Agricultural Methodologies « Every Kitchen Table

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