As the public debates a new farm bill we hear things like, "only 2 percent of the people in America are farmers and only about one-third of those get federal subsidies."
However, such claims are misleading without a fair definition of "farm." A farm, which includes ranches, is "any operation that sells at least one thousand dollars of agricultural commodities or that would have sold that amount of produce under normal circumstances," according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
That definition explains why 94 percent of American farms are "small" and most receive no federal subsidies. Small operations are often done as a hobby or for lifestyle, not to support a family.
Having a meaningful discussion about federal farm policy is very difficult when "farm" means something most of us would not view as a farm.
Farm policy might make more sense if Congress defined a "farm" as an agricultural operation from which the operator derived at least half his household income. Do we want farms that actually produce something significant while supporting a family?
If that were the federal definition of farm, how many farms would be left? How many of those would need subsidies? Probably no one knows the answers. However, the nature of the debate would change dramatically if most of the current "farms" disappeared from the discussion due to a working definition more closely resembling reality.
The farm subsidy programs began in the early 1940s as a means of restoring the population and economy of the Great Plains after many rural people left due to hard times in the 1930s.
Total farm numbers in the United States flattened out about 1910, peaked in 1935, and have steadily declined since. Farm size has steadily risen at a comparable rate.
Some farms are productive. "Family farms" in the large and very large categories are less than 8 percent of all farms but account for 53 percent of farm production. Are those the farms our farm bill should promote?
Despite all we hear about nonfamily (corporate) farms, they are only 2 percent of all farms and account for only about 13 percent of production.
About 29 percent of all farms have owners who list farming as their occupation. That group owns 40 percent of the farm land. Are those the farms our farm bill should promote?
Almost two thirds of US farms are in categories USDA calls "limited resource, retirement and residential lifestyle" and produce very little (9 percent of farm output). Are those the farms our farm bill should promote?
The federal government has changed the definition of "farm" nine times since 1850. Maybe it is time for them to take another stab at getting it right.