The State of US Farm Operator Livelihoods

Realized net income of farmers in (A.) 1969 (adjusted to 2019 dollars) and (B.) 2019.


In nine of the last 10 years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reported that the average funds generated on-farm for farm operators to meet living expenses and debt obligations have been negative. This paper pieces together disparate data to understand why farm operators in the most productive agricultural systems on the planet are systematically losing money. The data-driven narrative we present highlights some troubling trends in US farm operator livelihoods. Though US farms are more productive than ever before, rising input costs, volatile production values, and rising land rents have left farmers with unprecedented levels of farm debt, low on-farm incomes, and high reliance on federal programs. For many US farm operators, the indicators of a “good livelihood”-stability, security, equitable rewards for work-are largely absent.

Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems
Dr. Emily Burchfield
Dr. Emily Burchfield
Assistant Professor