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How the Farm Business Has Changed

Posted by Bob Hoppe, Agricultural Structure and Productivity Branch, Economic Research Service in Research and Science Technology
Feb 21, 2017

Two tractors plant in field. Research shows that two major farm inputs – land and labor – decreased over time, while output rose. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)
Two tractors plant in field. Research shows that two major farm inputs – land and labor – decreased over time, while output rose. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Over a relatively short time period, innovations in farms’ production practices, risk management, and business arrangements have allowed U.S. farmers to greatly increase their output without raising total input use.  These changes accompanied a shift in production to larger farms.  Drawing on a variety of data sources, the Economic Research Service recently examined the changes in farming during a 25-year period that ended with the most recent census of agriculture.

We found that the use of two major inputs—land and labor—decreased over time.  Between 1982 and 2007, land used in agriculture dropped from 54 to 51 percent of total U.S. land area, while farming used 30 percent less hired labor and 40 percent less operator labor.  Yet farmers managed to increase output by nearly 50 percent. The reason: increases in productivity from the adoption of new technologies, more intensive use of manufactured inputs, such as fertilizers, and the efficiencies gained as farm production shifted to larger, more specialized operations.

Farmers also altered how they manage risk, relying heavily on contracting, more complex forms of legal organization, and Federal crop insurance.  Contracting assures a market for commodities, and the practice increased roughly 10 percentage points between 1991 and 2007, reaching nearly 40 percent in 2007.  Sales from farm partnerships and corporations—generally family owned— grew from 34 percent of all farm product sales in 1982 to 43 percent by 2007, allowing the risks of farm production to be spread over a wider set of stakeholders.  Land insured through Federal crop insurance nearly tripled from 100 million acres in 1989 to over 270 million acres by 2007.  The increase reflects increased premium subsidies that reduced costs of the insurance for farmers, as well as the introduction of new programs such as revenue insurance.

Since the 1980s, government policies have shifted from concentrating on managing the supply of commodities in order to maintain prices, to focusing on income support, with a growing emphasis on environmental concerns.  As larger farms produce the bulk of crops covered by commodity programs, they receive the bulk of commodity program payments.  In contrast, most land-retirement payments accrue to smaller farms.  Payments from working-land programs—made for conservation efforts on land in production—are increasing in importance and follow the pattern of commodity payments, tending to accrue to larger operations.

A question often asked about farming concerns the survival of the family farm. Despite dramatic changes in the organization of farming, most farms remain family operations, with the majority of the farm business owned by the farm operator and individuals related to the operator.  Overall, 98 percent of all farms are family operations—which can be organized as partnerships or family corporations as well as proprietorships—accounting for 82 percent of production.

Read more findings from our report, The Changing Organization of U.S. Farming.

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Jan 10, 2012

Factory farming of animals is cruel beyond belief.. and a sin against God.

John Smith
Jan 11, 2012

This has monsanto, corruption, evil, and greed all over it. One day, the entire food system will collapse, due to the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, etc. Water will be completely contaminated, and long-term disease (i.e. cancers) even more pervasive (which will help fuel the pharmaceutical companies. The of the free? I think not.

Kay Zirkel
Jan 12, 2012

Statistics are great, But the family farmstead is in Real trouble and the USDA is partly to blame for this. By advocating the use of products that change the molecular structure of the very food we eat (Monsanto and other Companies) we are allowing poison to control our lives. We can no longer say we feed the world, instead we are promoting the very diseases IE: cancers, for our future generations. USDA should support all manner of farming and ranching to produce the best we can with out adding more chemicals to our food chain. If USDA really wants to help us than work with us not dictate to us.

Fred Flintstone
Jan 16, 2012

For thoes that replied they dont have a clue If they are so smart lets go back to the day of 1910 and farm with horses no drugs of ANY KIND!!!!! and the death rate of peaple was so much higher than you can belive because of the illiness,infections,baby deaths, Oh lets not forget the # of FAT people was less that 2% of population, little or no electric,running water,heat by wood,coal or straw Go right and left to see how many people will do this Bin there and done that One last thing you want to eat kill a animal or go hungery

Bartholomew Henry Allen
Jun 08, 2018

Well, in a lot of these comments, it's stating the worst sides of how farming has changed. Farming has also changed for the better. Now, each farmer can feed more people with the same amount of land because of fertilizers, GMO, and pesticides. Instead of relying on other people to design a solution, create it yourself.

Ruby age, 11
Oct 19, 2021

Statistics aren't always what's needed yes it important but talk more about the crop yields and add more public opinions to it like what farmers think about the changes to the farms and machinery needed for the farms. Give more opinions over the changes and make it like an essay on how have the changes have given an advantage or disadvantage to the environment and people in it. give it more diversion to where people can express their opinions more easily and help lead people to believing what they want to believe and encourage more farms in the U.S. Also think about adding things like how one farmer could feed 25.8 people in 1962 and now can feed 155 people using less land and making more yields. Also talk about the improved and new machinery. Also make it to where younger people can red it and understand it.