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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1. Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson to John Jay, from Paris, August 23, 1785,” in Agriculture in the United States: A Documentary History, vol. 1, ed. Wayne D. Rasmussen (New York: Random House, 1975), 295.
2. I. P. Roberts, “Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Convention of the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations,” US Department of Agriculture Bulletin No. 41 (US Department of Agriculture, Office of Experiment Stations, Washington, DC, Nov. 10–12, 1896).
3. Sources abound on the development of public land policies in the United States. I have relied primarily on three classic reference works, Benjamin Horace Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies (1924; repr., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965); Roy Robbins, Our Landed Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942); and Paul Wallace Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington, DC: Public Land Law Review Commission, 1968), as well as on the excerpts of various land laws included in Wayne Rasmussen’s four-volume Agriculture in the United States: A Documentary History (New York: Random House, 1975).
4. Headrights land grants continued in some places into statehood. For example, Steven Hahn describes a system in eighteenth-century Georgia of granting two hundred acres per head of household with an additional fifty acres for each child and slave up to a total of ten. See Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 19.
5. Quoted in Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies, 351.
6. Harold D. Guither, Heritage of Plenty: A Guide to the Economic History and Development of US Agriculture (Danville, IL: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1972), 38; “Acts of the Twenty-Second Congress, Session I,” Statute 1, Chapter 65, Apr. 5, 1832, Statutes at Large, 503, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/22nd-congress/c22.pdf (accessed Apr. 27, 2020).
7. Jeremy Atack and Fred Bateman, “Yeoman Farming: Antebellum America’s Other ‘Peculiar Institution,‘” in Agriculture and National Development: Views on the Nineteenth Century, ed. Lou Ferleger (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990); and Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism.
8. Atack and Bateman, “Yeoman Farming,” 27–29, 37.
9. Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism, 27.
10. As with sources on public land policies in the United States, sources on the rise of farm organizations in the nineteenth century are numerous. I have used syntheses of these sources found in Murray R. Benedict, Farm Policies of the United States, 1790–1950 (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1953); and Patrick H. Mooney and Theo J. Majka, Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Movements: Social Protest in American Agriculture (New York: Twayne, 1995). Readers interested in looking further into these organizations might want to begin with Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); as well as the classic Theodore Saloutos and John D. Hicks, Twentieth-Century Populism: Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900–1939 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1951). Studies on individual organizations are also available. See, for example, Robert C. McMath Jr., The Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977); and Robert Morlan, Political Prairiefire: The Non-Partisan League, 1915–1922 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955). For data on agricultural productivity in this period, see Ralph A. Loomis and Glen T. Barton, “Productivity of Agriculture, United States, 1870–1958,” US Department of Agriculture Bulletin 1238 (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, 1961). The data I have used from that report appears in Willard W. Cochrane, The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), Table 10.2, 205.
11. The transformation of farming in the early decades of the twentieth century has been treated by a number of scholars, but Deborah Fitzgerald’s Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) has become the authoritative study on the influences leading to the adoption of mechanization, specialization, and economies of scale among US farmers in the early twentieth century.
12. For a contemporary analysis reflecting changing views on land policy, see L. C. Gray, “National Land Policies in Retrospect and Prospect,” Journal of Farm Economics 13, no. 2 (Apr. 1931): 231–45; and for a contemporary expression of these ideas for a broader farm audience, see Wheeler McMillen, Too Many Farmers (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1929). For historical analysis on the rise of land utilization planning, see especially Sarah T. Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Jess Gilbert, Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); and Richard S. Kirkendall, Social Scientists and Farm Politics in the Age of Roosevelt (1966; repr., Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982).
13. President’s Committee on Farm Tenancy, Farm Tenancy: Report of the President’s Committee (Washington, DC: National Resources Committee, 1937), v, quoted in Benedict, Farm Policies, 358.
14. US Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Long Range Agricultural Policy and Program, p. 30, FF XII D2, Box 1.2/51, USDA History Collection, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, Maryland (hereafter cited as NAL).
15. “Agriculture’s Plans to Aid in Defense and Meet the Impacts of War: A Summary of Reports of State Agricultural Planning Committees,” July 23, 1941, quoted in Gilbert, Planning Democracy, 236–37.
16. Joseph Ackerman and Marshall Harris, eds., Family Farm Policy; Proceedings of a Conference on Family Farm Policy, attended by participants from the British Commonwealth, northern Europe, central Europe, Latin America, and the United States; held at the University of Chicago, Feb. 15–20, 1946 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), 7.
17. Jackson V. McElveen, “Family Farms in a Changing Economy,” Agricultural Information Bulletin 171 (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 1957), 50. For details on the Brannan Plan, see Virgil W. Dean, An Opportunity Lost: The Truman Administration and the Farm Policy Debate (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006); and Allen J. Matusow, Farm Policies and Politics in the Truman Years (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967). For a useful perspective on the complexity of defining the family farm by acreage and family labor use, see Victoria Saker Woeste, “Land, Monopoly, Agribusiness, and the State: Discovering the Family Farm in Twentieth-Century California,” in The Countryside in the Age of the Modern State: Political Histories of Rural America, ed. Catherine McNicol Stock and Robert D. Johnston (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 66–87.
18. McElveen, “Family Farms in a Changing Economy,” 11–12.
19. McElveen, “Family Farms in a Changing Economy,” 47–55.
20. McElveen, “Family Farms in a Changing Economy,” 11–12. Each census report includes a definition of what constitutes a farm and a farm operator. While the specific language can vary, the definition remains essentially the same—a farm is defined by a minimum sales or production value, and a farm operator is defined as the person who does the farm work or directly supervises those who do. The report also specifies that the definition of farm operator includes owners, hired managers, tenants, renters, or sharecroppers. See, for example, “Introduction,” 1954 Census of Agriculture, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, 1954), xxix, http://lib-usda-05.serverfarm.cornell.edu/usda/AgCensusImages/1954/02/00/1954-02-00.pdf (accessed Mar. 4, 2021). There is no explicit definition of “family farm.” Farms appear to have been assumed to be family operated unless they met the criteria for “abnormal farms,” i.e., farms operated by institutions, communities, producer associations, experiment stations, or similar organizations.
21. Ackerman and Harris, eds., Family Farm Policy, 126–27.
22. See multiple excerpts from the Congressional Record, 1958–1969, FF 1957–1962, FF 1967, and FF 1971–2/21/73, Box 1.4/4, and FF XI A1a(2) Family farm, Box 1.4/64, USDA History Collection, NAL.
23. For descriptions of the complex landscape of agrarian organizing in the 1970s and 1980s, see especially Mooney and Majka, Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Movements, 97–119; and Mary Summers, “From the Heartland to Seattle: The Family Farm Movement of the 1980s and the Legacy of Agrarian State Building,” in Stock and Johnston, The Countryside in the Age of the Modern State, 304–25.
24. Food and Agriculture Act of 1977, Public Law 95-113, Sept. 29, 1977, Sections 102 and 1440. The annual reports on the status of the family farm continue to be published by USDA’s Economic Research Service. The first appeared in 1978; the most recent report appeared in Feb. 2020. See Christine Whitt, James M. MacDonald, and Jessica E. Todd, “America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2019 Edition,” Economic Information Bulletin 214 (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2019), https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=95546 (accessed Oct. 20, 2020).
25. Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, US Senate, Farm Structure: A Historical Perspective on Changes in the Number and Size of Farms, 96th Cong., 2nd Session, Apr. 1980; and US Department of Agriculture, A Time to Choose: Summary Report on the Structure of Agriculture (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, 1981). The USDA History Collection, Special Collections Division, NAL, contains numerous files on the family farm, small farms, and farm structure from the 1940s through the 1990s, collected by USDA historians in conjunction with the farm structure studies cited above. Some have been cited above, but see also folders on family farms and small farms in Series I, Documentary Files, General, especially Subseries 2 and 5; and Series XI, Personal Papers, Box 11, David E. Brewster Papers, ca. 1965–1975, https://specialcollections.nal.usda.gov/collection-map-usda-history-collection (accessed Oct. 20, 2020).
26. Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, US Senate, Farm Structure, iii–vi.
27. US Department of Agriculture, A Time to Choose, 152.
28. Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, Farm Household Income Characteristics, Table 13, “Mean and median farm operator household income and ratio of farm household to U.S. household income, 1960–2018,” http://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/DataFiles/48870/table13.xlsx?v=4063.7 (accessed Sept. 10, 2020).
29. Peggy F. Barlett, American Dreams and Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 7–10 (see especially p. 9n3 regarding ownership), 65–72, 98–119 (see especially p. 105 for Barlett’s categorization method).
30. Gary Comstock, ed., Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1987), xxv. Comstock notes that he is borrowing a definition proposed by Luther Tweeten in his Causes and Consequences of Structural Change in the Farming Industry (Washington, DC: National Planning Association, 1984).
31. For an excellent introduction to agrarian views of farming, both historically and more recently, see Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue, eds., American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
32. Jim Hightower, “The Case for the Family Farm,” in Comstock, Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?, 206.
33. Wendell Berry, “A Defense of the Family Farm,” in Comstock, Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?, 347–48.