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Define a "farm"

What is a farm?Click here and tell us your definition of a farm

By Ken Root

"Twelve cows, 12 sows and 100 chickens," was one response from a caller when the definition was the subject of active debate on radio. The inability to define a farm continues today as Congress is writing farm legislation that may exclude the very small and the very large from services and subsidization. In the journey from subsistence to mega producer American agriculture remains at war with itself, as to who should be protected and incentivized by government programs and payments and who should be cast into the fiery marketplace to fend for themselves.

The bureaucracy of the USDA wants to show as many farms as possible, so they define one by income of over $1,000 from sales of agricultural production. Former Senator Bob Dole, in his biting humor, once said: "There's a law that says you can't have more USDA employees than farmers." Under the USDA definition there are over 2 million farms, but under their same accounting system they show sharply lower numbers that produce the majority of our crops and livestock and receive government payments.

In debate now going on in the agriculture committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Chairman Collin Peterson is calling for an end to subsidies for farms below 10 acres of farm program base. "These folks are not really farmers," he says, and called for an end to payments to these 255,000 farms. He reasoned that it would remove a huge burden from the Farm Service Agency.

On the top side, the current civil war is north versus south on payment limits. Iowa's U.S. Sens. Grassley and Harkin argue that only "family farmers" should receive program payments and these should be capped at $250,000 per year. The southern rice and cotton interests, as well as some other commodity organizations, argue that payments should be made for the purpose of encouraging commodity production. And placing a ceiling on personal income or total government payments would minimize control of large entities.

So my question is: "When is a farm not a farm?" Should the government impose size or income restrictions on those who receive payments, and if so, what should those be? It's easy to say: "Anyone bigger than me is not a farmer." But, the reality is that government programs have been designed to maximize production so larger growers are more important than smaller ones.

History is a liability in writing new farm policy, as the generational view of farms by farmers and urban dwellers alike is of small, labor intensive, high risk enterprises that feed a family. Today, most farms have one or two off-farm incomes. In the 1990s President Bill Clinton, speaking about rural economic development made the profound comment: "Farmers need jobs." He was right, as very few farms are truly an entity all to themselves. There is also no age of exit from farming, so Social Security becomes "non-farm" income to subsidize a lifestyle.

If Congress were to be totally fair about farm program payments, they would put down a definition of a farm in terms of income, size, crop or livestock, outside income, age of occupants and net worth. This would, however, be out of date from the moment it was adopted.

Still, for the public to support farm payments they need to go to those viewed as "worthy" of receiving them. The integrated poultry and pork producers are clearly outside this range, as are those receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments while carrying on a high profile career outside agriculture (basketball player Scottie Pippin receiving $79,000 in conservation subsidies on his Arkansas land holdings). The smallest of farms are viewed, even by their owners, as the means to a lifestyle and could drop away from the debate, but to do so the USDA needs to revamp its laughable definition of a farm and this probably won't happen. Eliminating all payments to all farmers is not an option because of the train wreck that it would cause in land values and political upheavals apt to unseat many incumbents.

So what's your definition of a farm that should receive government payments? We'll put your responses in our editorial section over the next few weeks. Be insightful, be introspective and be entertaining in your responses.

Please send to or Ken Root, 2141 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50312, or leave a recorded message at 1-800-227-1821. You may also go to and click on the link "What is your definition of a farm?"

Editor's note: Ken Root is now celebrating his 34th year as an agricultural professional. His career began as a vocational agriculture teacher then turned to agricultural broadcasting and writing as well as environmental consulting and association management. He was the original host of AgriTalk (1994-2001) and now is lead farm broadcaster for WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa.


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