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April 2024

New Census shows Iowa agriculture is still dominated by family farms

Every five years, the US Department of Agriculture carries out a complete survey of farms and farmers across the nation. The most recent one was conducted in 2022. The information that is collected and published serves a wide variety of purposes. One of the more important ones is to provide a snapshot of what farms and farmers at the national, state and county level look like and how they are changing over time. The Census of Agriculture definition for a farm is any operation that produced or could have produced $1,000 of agricultural products, so many very small businesses are included.

One section summarizes characteristics of farms according to their type of legal organization. The categories are:

  • Farm units operated as a sole proprietorship by a single individual or family.
  • Farm units organized as a partnership. Most partnerships have multiple operators, who are often related to each other.
  • Farm units organized as a corporation. The Census divides them into family-owned and nonfamily-owned corporations.
  • Other farm units, which includes mostly farms held in a trust or an estate.

Table 1 in this article summarizes some key characteristics of Iowa farms, according to their type of organization. Partnerships and family-owned corporations are combined, because they have similar ownership structures and scale.

The vast majority (82%) of Iowa farms are operated by individuals or families. Another 15% are organized as partnerships or family corporations. Only 1% of Iowa farms are nonfamily corporations, while 3% fall into the "other" category.

Farm size

Individual and family farms tend to be smaller than other types. They operated only 295 acres, on average, and generated $389,964 in gross income per farm in 2022.

The average family corporation and partnership operated 640 acres and generated $1,334,502 in gross income in 2022. Nonfamily corporations operated only 370 acres, on average, but generated nearly the same gross income per farm unit as the family corporations and partnerships. Nonfarm corporations were more likely to specialize in intensive livestock production, which requires less land area. Eighty percent of their agricultural sales came from livestock, compared to only 37% for individual and family farms, and 46% for all farms.

Direct payments from state and federal government programs accounted for about 2% of gross farm income, averaging just over $9,000 per farm. These payments are received for such purposes as incentivizing conservations practices, supporting low commodity prices and taking land out of production. Payments to non-operating landowners were not included in these totals.

Number of farmers

The Census of Agriculture also counts farm "producers," or people who are active in the management of a farm unit. Many farm units have more than one active producer, including spouses, other related parties and unrelated individuals. The average Iowa farm had 1.81 producers, a third of whom were female. Not surprisingly, partnerships and family corporations included more producers, 2.35, while nonfamily corporations counted 2.51 producers each. In total, there were 157,531 farm producers in Iowa in 2022.

In addition, many farms hired outside labor. The average Iowa farm hired 0.83 employees. By category, this number ranged from 0.59 for individual and family farms to 2.65 for non-family corporations.
In general, the 2022 Census of Agriculture shows that Iowa agriculture is still dominated by family and small multi-family farms. Combined, they operated 97% of the total acres and generated 97% of the total gross farm income in the state in 2022.

The full Census report can be accessed online, 2022 Census of Agriculture. Data are available for all states, and for each county within a state.

Table 1. Comparison of Iowa farms by type of organization.


William Edwards, retired economist. Questions?