Skip Navigation
Iowa State University Extension

Small farms have big potential, ISU Extension specialist says

Andy Larson

How big is a small farm? What may seem like a contradiction is instead a key question for understanding Iowa’s farm economy, says Andy Larson, ISU Extension’s new small farms specialist. From the amount of sales to the type of lifestyle, Iowa’s small farms picture is complicated, he said. But Larson and ISU Extension’s Small Farm Sustainability program are sorting through the issues to help those entrepreneurs who really want to make a business venture of living and working on small farms.

“We don’t have a good way to distinguish large vs. small farms except by sales,” Larson said. USDA categorizes small family farms as having less than $250,000 in agricultural sales and further divides this group by lifestyle.

Farming occupation/high sales farms have operators who list farming as their primary occupation and report $100,000 to $249,999 in annual agricultural sales. Other subdivisions report sales less than $100,000 annually, whether farming is their primary occupation or they are retired, have occupations other than farming or are limited-resource farms with operator household income below both the poverty level and half the county median.

Noting National Agricultural Statistics Service data, Larson said in 2007 about 84 percent (74,600) of all Iowa farms reported sales of less than $250,000, classifying them as small family farms by USDA standards. About 15,000 of these farms fit the farming occupation/high-sales category, and the remaining 59,600 fit into the categories with sales less than $100,000.

“Many of these farms are operating within Iowa’s conventional agricultural model, but others are pushing the entrepreneurial envelope; they might be raising free-range poultry for retail meat sales or vegetables for farmers’ markets,” Larson said. “They may establish new enterprises, beyond conventional crops and livestock, to bring a son or daughter into the business.”

Small farms are proving that Iowa is much more diverse than corn, soybean and concentrated animal agriculture, Larson said. From horticultural crops to local and regional food venues, to grass-finished cattle for direct-to-consumer sales, these enterprises bring great potential to Iowa’s farming landscape.

“Diversity is often a risk spreading strategy,” he said.

Extension’s Small Farm Sustainability program will provide education on farm planning and decision-making to help these small, diversified farm businesses become more viable, ecological and sustainable, he added.

For more information about the ISU Extension’s Small Farm Sustainability program, contact Larson,

This article appeared in October 2008 -- From Jack Payne Newsletter