AgDM newsletter article, October 1997

Changes in Iowa farm structure 

Mike Duffyby Michael Duffy, Extension Economist, 515/294-6161,

The decline in the number of Iowa farms has been a concern for many years.  More recently, concerns about the aging farm population and ‘who will farm the land’ have surfaced.  In addition, some view the movement to large swine production units as a further indication of the decline of the family farm.  Many people are concerned that the direction of change is leading to undesirable consequences.  However, good statistics on the structural changes in Iowa agriculture are hard to find. 

U.S. Census of Agriculture

The U.S. Census of Agriculture is one source of information.  It is designed to count the number and types of farms. It defines a farm as any unit with $1,000 or more of agricultural sales. For example, according to their most recent estimate, there are 98,000 farms in Iowa.  Unfortunately, it provided little help in examining the underlying structure of the industry. 

Census limitations

The Census data is limited in its usefulness for analyzing farm structural in two important ways.  First, the Census includes part-time and retired farmers because of its “anything with more than $1,000 of sales” farm definition.  They have tried to overcome this by asking for the “principle occupation” of the respondent.  However, it is unclear whether this solves the problem.  Secondly, the Census does not recognize multi-family operations. 

Survey of Iowa farmers

In response to the lack of information, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service conducted a telephone survey to examine the structure of agriculture in Iowa.  The survey produced 1,134 usable responses.

Principal occupation

Based on the survey, 62,000 (63 percent) of the 98,000 farms in Iowa consider farming as their principal occupation as shown in Table 1.  Of those who consider farming as their principal occupation, 23 percent are ages 55 to 64 and another 29 percent are over 65 years of age. This means that over half (52 percent) of those who consider farming as their principal occupation are over 55 years of age.

Of those farmers under 55 years of age who consider farming as their principal occupation, only 25 percent have sales of $100,000 or more.  This means that only 12 percent of Iowa farmers are under 55 years of age and have sales of $100,000 or more.  This is equivalent to 76 farms per county.

Table 1.  Number of Farms in Iowa and Average Number of Farms per County.

Total farms
Farming prin.occupation

55 & over


under 55

Farming prin.occupation, under 55,  & sales of  $1,000 or more

Multiple units

We asked if the farmer was involved with another operation.  Twenty percent of the respondents answered yes.  We also asked how many families were involved in the management (decision making) of the farm.  More than one family was involved in decision making on 17 percent of the farms.  Some respondents answered yes to both questions.  Nearly one third (31 percent), of Iowa farms are multi-family and multi-operation farms. 

An additional 14 percent of the respondents had someone help them on a regular basis.  Of these, the majority (86 percent) of the ‘regular helpers’ were family members such as fathers, fathers-in-law, uncles, and so forth. So, it appears that between 30 and 45 percent of the farms involve more than one family member.

Income generating enterprises

We asked respondents to identify the three top income generating commodities produced on their farm.  Fourteen percent only listed one commodity.  Another 39 percent listed 2 commodities.  So, over half (53 percent) of the farms in Iowa have only one or two income generating commodities.  Such a narrow production base has many implications for Iowa agriculture and the type of structure that exists.


The structure of agriculture has many important implications for the future of rural communities.  Several studies over the past four decades have consistently shown that a corporate agriculture structure, when compared to a family agriculture, reduces the quality of life in rural communities.  The problems identified include:

Protecting family agriculture is the basis for many of the laws and regulations being proposed or implemented.  Secretary Glickman recently appointed a commission charged with determining how small farms can compete.

Iowa farm structure continues to change rapidly.  On one hand, the statistics regarding age, number of farmers, and so forth are very disconcerting.  However, the statistics do not capture the true nature of the multi-family and multi operation farms.  These tend to be mostly family relations.  Before we continue to pursue new laws and regulations, we must have a truer picture of the structure of agriculture.

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