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Family-run dairies are alive, well, and here to stay

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Dairy isn’t dead, and neither is the family farm. The National Milk Producers Federation is working to define dairy once again – and that doesn’t mean a redefinition of dairy farms. While dairy farms have increased in size, continued rhetoric regarding the “decline of the family farm” simply isn’t true. It’s still the same kind of people owning and operating dairies that there’s always been, and that means families, not corporations.  

It’s important to understand when discussing the family farm, what exactly the definition of a family farm is. The USDA classifies family farms as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation.” Farm organizations that are organized as non-family corporations or co-ops and those with hired managers are excluded from this definition. Family farms are a key part of U.S. agriculture, accounting for 98 percent of all farms and 88 percent of production. Midsize and large-scale family farms make up about 66 percent of production — large-scale farms produce the majority of the dairy consumed and grown in the U.S. 

Changing times have necessitated growth in many industries. Family farms are no exception, and have grown through necessity. Farmers have employed new technologies, better genetics, and improved cattle care throughout the years. Even the number of cattle owned by operations has adapted: in 1990, dairies raised about 50 cows, and now, most operations have about 300 cows. But, what hasn’t changed is the consistent reliability of the family-owned dairy farm. In addition to technologies, family-owned dairy farms have grown due to changing family demographics. Operations who couldn’t support multiple families have purchased other farms that were sold out, accounting for the growth in their farm sizes. Farmers who retired and had no children interested in the industry were bought out by by these increasingly growing family farms. 

»Related: Viewpoint: Americans For Family Farmers group is masquerading as ag-friendly charity

The U.S. holds about 39,442 dairy farms. According to 2020 USDA data, 38,286 of these dairy farms are family-operated. When you do the math, that means that over 97.1 percent of American farms are operated and owned by families, just below the 2016 reported number of 97.3 percent. 

USDA trends on family farms, graphic courtesy of NMPF

Family-owned farms are a pivotal cornerstone of the agricultural economy, and family dairy farms are here to stay. You can read more about family farms here. 

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