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Know Your Farmer, Know Their Farm

Contributors: Diane Welland, MS, RD

Published: October 10, 2023

Woman farmer in field on a farm with a tractor inspecting crops.
Kikujiarm/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Farmers are unsung heroes, working tirelessly to put food on our tables every day. To know your farmer is to appreciate the food they provide — but just as important is to know their farm. The type of farm determines the food produced and is as unique as the people who run it. Here are some popular types of farming operations:

Family Farms

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2020, approximately 98% of farms in the United States were considered family farms, meaning relatives were involved with the business. Furthermore, most family farms are small, and many are handed down from generation to generation. In 2021, small family farms accounted for 89% of all U.S. farms. While some small farms produce a single item, such as eggs, others produce several goods, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Many small family farms sell their goods at local farmers markets.

Industrial or Conventional Farms

Industrial farms are large-scale operations that often use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in order to produce high yields. Often these farms are monocultures, which means they grow the same crop in a large piece of land each year. In livestock production, these farms are called Animal Feeding Operations, or AFOs, if the animals being raised are confined for 45 days or more within a 12-month time frame. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are farms where animals are raised, tended and fed in a confined area; they are defined as small, medium or large, based on the type and number of animals, as well as the waste they produce. The purpose of CAFOs is to reduce the footprint required to raise animals.

Organic Farms

Organic farms grow and process food without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (organic fertilizers and pesticides are allowed) and follow specific organic farming practices. The USDA has a National Organic Certification program; however, many small farmers — although they may follow organic practices — often choose not get certified, mainly due to cost and paperwork.

Aquaculture/Fish Farms

Aquaculture is the breeding, rearing and harvesting of fish or shellfish and aquatic plants. There are two types: marine and freshwater. Marine farmed fish are usually kept in pens in areas of the ocean, while freshwater fish are in ponds or human-made waterways. Aquaculture was developed to reduce the demand for wild-caught seafood and help rebuild and replenish global seafood supplies. Aquaculture in the U.S. primarily consists of oysters, clams, mussels, salmon, catfish, crawfish, shrimp, trout and tilapia.

Apiaries/Bee Yard

An apiary is the location where beehives are kept, sometimes called a “bee yard.” Beehives can be permanently stationed for pollinating certain crops, or they can be mobile, housed in trucks and moved from place to place. Apiaries can be as small as one or two hives or as large as hundreds of hives such as in commercial operations.


A ranch is land specifically used to breed and raise livestock such as cows, horses, sheep and pigs in order to produce meat. Ranches can focus on one single animal such as cattle, or they can include a variety. Ranches also range in size from very small to large swaths of land.

Dairy Farms

Dairy farms are dedicated to raising animals — mainly cows, but also goats, sheep and buffalo — solely for the long-term production of milk. This milk is then processed and sold as is or turned into dairy products including butter and cheese. Although the number of dairy farms has significantly declined over the last few decades, mainly due to consolidation, they still are mostly family-run operations.

Urban Farms

Located in cities, often in unexpected places like rooftops, parking lots, warehouses and other spaces, urban farms can be agricultural or animal based. Many urban farms were developed to supply local businesses such as restaurants, while others rely on community support. All urban farms are uniquely tailored to their environment.

Mixed Farms

Mixed farms grow agricultural products as well as raise and breed livestock.

U-Pick Farms

Farmers at U-pick farms allow customers or the public to pick, choose or cut their own product out of the field or orchard. While some offer a variety of produce, many focus on one or two seasonal items such as apples in the fall, strawberries in the spring and peaches in the summer. They often are located near big cities to attract customers.

Hobby Farms

Hobby farms are small-scale operations (less than 50 acres) run primarily for pleasure rather than a business venture. Owners typically have other jobs off the farm to pay the bills. Unlike homesteaders, hobby farmers are not driven by self-sufficiency.

Cooperative (Co-op) Farms

Co-op farms are a network of farmers who pool their resources together to improve the quality of goods and services. Many small farmers join a co-op to compete with large operations or to offer their goods to a wider audience.

Other Farms

Traditional agriculture grows plants in soil in the ground. Other farms, however, can be vertical, where plants are stacked on top of each other.

There also are hydroponic, aeroponic or aquaponic operations. Hydroponic farms grow plants in a nutrient-rich water solution; aeroponic farms rely on air to supply a nutrient-rich mist to plants; and aquaponic farms combine aquaculture with hydroponic systems, raising fish to produce waste which then feeds the plants. The plants then purify the water for the fish, creating a mutually beneficial relationship. All these methods seek to produce high yields with minimal resources and less land use, making them well-suited for urban settings.

Over the years, farm practices have evolved and grown dramatically to adapt to new technology and the changing environment. Knowing your farmer and the farm they own goes a long way in understanding where your food comes from and how it gets from farm to table.

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