The Family Farm

— Written By Zack Taylor and last updated by
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While we have been working on the Reshaping the Landscape project, a constant theme in every story was the bond of families working together on the farm. That got me thinking about how much we hear about “corporate” farms in today’s media and marketing, and the loss of family farms. Generally, it is implied that these corporate farms are putting the small farms out of business. However, in my experience, I’ve never been on a farm that I wouldn’t consider a family farm. I wondered, where are all of these corporate farms we hear so much about? So, I decided to look a little into the numbers.

According to the most recent agriculture census, there are 50,218 farms here in North Carolina. Out of that total, nearly 87% are classified as family farms. This based on a legal definition, defining a family farm as one identified as a sole proprietorship, which means they are owned by one person and operated by the family. So, what about the other 13% of farms? Are those the corporate farms we hear so much about?

Not quite, another 6% of farms are owned by partnerships. This means even though a farm may be owned jointly by a husband and wife or a brother and sister, they are no longer classified as a family farm, instead, that farm is considered a partnership. In my mind, these farms are generally still run by families, so a family partnership is still a family farm to me. That still leaves 7% of farms in the state that are corporate farms then, right?

The agriculture census defines 6% of farms in North Carolina as “corporate” farms, with the remaining 1% being owned by another entity such as a trust, estate, or institutions. That leaves over 3,000 farms defined as “corporate” farms. That number still seemed high to me, so what really defines a corporate farm? Corporate farms are defined legally as any farm registered as a corporate entity, including all of the various statuses within that designation, such as LLC’s. Many farms I know of are incorporated as an LLC. This helps the farmer protect his or her assets and capital investments they have made into their farm. By this definition, many of these corporations consist of a few stakeholders, who are most commonly known by names like mom, dad, brother, and sister. In fact, only 320 farms, less than 0.6% of farms in North Carolina, are owned by corporations that are not family run. Kind of changes your perspective when you hear the negative connotations of a corporate or factory farm, doesn’t it?

What does all of this really mean? Although farms come in many shapes and sizes, the idea of the family farm is alive and well. When you support local agriculture, you are supporting a local business and helping a family in your community buy new clothes for their children, or pay for a little girl’s dance lessons, or send a child to college. Whether that farm is 10 acres or 10,000, more often than not it is owned and operated by a family, who shares a special bond as they work together to feed their community and the world.

Zack Taylor is the Agriculture Agent – Field Crops and Livestock, for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.