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Sixty percent of family farms had less than $10,000 in gross sales in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Small family farms depend more on income earned from non-farming activities than farming. For example, the ERS reports that “60 percent of farm households with farms grossing under $10,000 in 2008 had negative average farm incomes, receiving all of their household income from off-farm sources”--just one of the disadvantages of family farms.
Industrial farming in the United States has caused the family farm to be economically disadvantaged. Competing with the volume production of large factory farms is not possible for the small family farm. For example, small farms in Iowa have largely operated without profit since about 1960, according to Frederick Kirschenmann, the director of the Leopold Center for sustainable Agriculture in 2003.
Since the family farms have no reserves for maintaining the land, adding more productive acreage or investing in equipment and facilities that increase production, they fall behind in their ability to compete. The current markets respond to volumes that the small family farm cannot produce.
Additionally, retailers demand packaging that fits their demographics and small farms cannot make enough from their crops to provide a wide range of packaging options.
Family farmers often do all the work themselves, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their work is strenuous, the days are long and they have times during the year when there is no time off for weeks on end. In many cases the children also share the work load.
Livestock requires regular feeding and watering and caring for injuries and illness. Dairy cows have to be milked at least twice a day, every day of the year.
The family farmer has to plant crops for feeding livestock and then harvest and store those crops. Farmers who grow crops like corn and soybeans have to plow the land, plant the seeds and till the fields.
And they have to maintain a wide variety of equipment. Tractors and field equipment require regular maintenance. Trucks, earth-working equipment and equipment used to care for livestock, such as barn cleaners and milking machine systems, also need maintenance.
Farmers depend on rain, but not too much, and cold, but not too little, to produce crops like corn and apples. When the weather does not deliver what’s needed, the crops don’t grow, or they are stunted.
Major weather disturbances also are disadvantages. Flooding claims thousands of acres of crops every year and drought contributes to even more barren acres. Even though no farmers have control over these events, the small family farmers are more affected since they often don’t have large acreage where the losses may be spread out.