Rhetoric surrounding the family farm ideal frequently interchanges or combines the terms “small” and “family,” suggesting a fusing of those ideas in the common understanding. But an examination of the meanings and definitions of those terms over time reveals an evolution of that understanding that has tracked the evolution of farming itself and led to some ambiguity in the concept that can complicate public policy discussions. This article explores the public policy definitions that reflect changing understandings of what is a family farm and how it is associated with the idea of smallness. While tracing those changes from their beginnings in colonial and early national land policy, it pays most attention to the twentieth century, when the policy discussion abruptly turned from considering how best to expand land in farms toward considering how best to manage the steady decline in farm numbers and parallel increase in farm size.

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