They are few and far between, but big farms churn out the vast majority of the agricultural production in the United States.
Large-scale farms -- those with sales of more than $250,000 annually -- make up only 10 percent of the agriculture industry, but account for 75 percent of the value of production.
That is one of the findings of the 2007 edition of the Family Farm Report, released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The report, conducted periodically by the agency's Economic Research Service, offers a snapshot of the industry. It also provides agricultural policymakers with information on the organization of farms in the nation. Other noteworthy finding in this year's study include:
Family farms account for 98 percent of farms and 85 percent of production.
Corporate farms account for less than 1 percent of the farms in the country and about 7 percent of farm product sales.
Although most farms are small and the operators own most of the farmland, production has shifted to very large farms. Farms with sales of $1 million or more annually make up 2 percent of all farms, but they account for 48 percent of farm product sales. Most of these million-dollar farms are family farms.
The most rapidly growing segment is farms with annual sales of $1 million or more. In 2002, million-dollar farms alone accounted for 48 percent of sales, compared with 23 percent in 1982.
Small family farms, those with sales of less than $250,000, accounted for 90 percent of U.S. farms in 2004. They also held about 68 percent of all farm assets, including 61 percent of the land owned by farms.
As custodians of the bulk of farm assets -- including land -- small farms figure largely in natural resource and environmental policy. They account for 82 percent of the land enrolled in conservation programs and wetland protection plans.
Large farms are more economically viable than small family farms. The average operating profit margins and rates of return on assets and equity for large farms were all positive in 2004. Most of these farms had a positive operating profit margin.
Small farms were less viable, but the majority of them posted a net income.
Small farm households rely heavily on off-farm income. Small farm operators typically received substantial off-farm income and do not rely primarily on their farms for their livelihood.
Maryland's agricultural land preservation program, already recognized as one of the most successful in the nation, keeps enrolling more property.
When the Board of Public Work gave its approval to the state's purchase of 40 farmland easements totaling 5,135 acres last month, the total acreage protected from development grew to 430,000. The 40 easements, scattered over 19 counties, cost taxpayers $34 million.
According to the state Department of Agriculture, Maryland has the greatest ratio of farmland preserved to the total landmass of any state. Maryland has 2.1 million acres of farmland.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said the purchase of farmland easements was designed to keep farmers on the land, preserve open space and protect the state's agricultural heritage.
A statewide public opinion survey by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy done in March found strong support for farmland preservation.
Ninety-six percent of the people surveyed said they believed it was at least "somewhat important" that the state preserve land for farming.
Nearly 75 percent said they believed it "was very important" for the state to do so.
The authors of the study said they did not know the reasons for the public views, but concluded that "Marylanders increasingly believe that farms and the products they produce should remain a part of our culture and economy."