By Rees Flanders
A family farm is a farm owned and operated by a family, and often passed down from generation to generation. It is the basic unit of the mostly agricultural economy of much of human history and continues to be so in developing nations. Alternatives to family farms include those run by agribusiness, colloquially known as factory farms, or by collective farming.
USDA legal definition
As defined by USDA regulations to farm loan programs (e.g. those administered by the Farm Service Agency), a family farm is a farm that produces agricultural commodities for sale in such quantities so as to be recognized in the community as a farm and not a rural residence; produces enough income (including off-farm employment) to pay family and farm operating expenses, pay debts, and maintain the property; is managed by the operator; has a substantial amount of labor provided by the operator and the operator’s family; and
may use seasonal labor during peak periods and a reasonable amount of full-time hired labor.
(For exact language, see 7 U.S.C. 1941.4,1943.4).
Perceptions of the family farm
In developed countries the family farm is viewed sentimentally, as a lifestyle to be preserved for tradition’s sake, or as a birthright. It is in these nations very often a political rallying cry against change in agricultural policy, most commonly in France, Japan, and the United States, where rural lifestyles are often regarded as desirable. In these countries, strange bedfellows can often be found arguing for similar measures despite otherwise vast differences in political ideology. For example, Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader, both candidates for the office of President of the United States, held rural rallies together and spoke for measures to preserve the so-called family farm. On other economic matters they were seen as generally opposed, but found common ground on this one.
The social roles of family farms are much changed today. Until recently, staying in line with traditional and conservative sociology, the heads of the household were usually the oldest man followed closely by his oldest sons. The wife generally took care of the housework, child rearing, and financial matters pertaining to the farm. However, agricultural activities have taken on many forms and change over time. Agronomy, horticulture, aquaculture, silviculture, and apiculture, along with traditional plants and animals, all make up aspects of today’s family farm. Farm wives often need to find work away from the farm to supplement farm income and children sometimes have no interest in farming as their chosen field of work.
Bolder promoters argue that as agriculture has become more efficient with the application of modern management and new technologies in each generation, the idealized classic family farm is now simply obsolete, or more often, unable to compete without the economies of scale available to larger and more modern farms. Advocates argue that family farms in all nations need to be protected, as the basis of rural society and social stability.