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Profile of Small Farms in Washington State

Profile of Small Farms in Washington State

Dr. Marcia Ostrom, Associate Professor, Washington State University Small Farms Program, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Colleen Donovan, Research Associate, Washington State University Small Farms Program, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources
Small farms are important to Washington State, with significant numbers of them found in every county. Beyond their economic contributions, these farms serve critical land stewardship functions, managing 42% of Washington farmland or 6,136,939 acres. However, research shows that the growth of small- and mid-sized farms is threatened. This publication gives an overview of the trends and many other aspects of small farms in Washington State.
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This summary of trends in Washington State agriculture is designed to assist agricultural researchers, educators, policymakers, planners, service providers, and agricultural businesses in better understanding and meeting the needs of Washington State’s small farms. Based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are 37,249 farms in Washington State. Of these farms, 89% or 33,228 have sales less than $250,000 per year, meeting the 2012 USDA Definition of a Small Farm (1998). Over 45% or 16,900 farms in Washington reported annual sales below $2,500 and can be classified as “non-commercial” operations. If these “non-commercial” farms are removed from the total, 80% of the remaining 20,349 farms have annual farm sales under $250,000. Overall, the number of farms in Washington State decreased 5% from 39,284 to 37,249 between the 2007 and 2012 agricultural census. This loss of farm numbers was most pronounced in farms with under $500,000 in sales. With the exception of farms with under $2,500 in sales, there has been a continuous loss of small and mid-sized farms since 1997. Two areas of continued growth in Washington State agriculture include the number of Latino-operated farms and the number of farms selling directly to consumers.


Small farms comprise 88% of all farms in the US and account for just under half (49%) of its farmland (USDA 2012a). A global assessment on the future of agriculture by an intergovernmental panel known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) found that intensifying productive capacity and resource conservation among diversified small farmers offers a unique opportunity to strengthen rural livelihoods, increase food security, enhance social equity, and improve the environment (McIntyre et al. 2009).

While smallholder agriculture represents the dominant form of production in the world, modern agricultural knowledge and technology development models have often failed to improve small farm productivity, enhance resource conservation, reduce rural poverty, or improve regional food security (McIntyre et al. 2009). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has made “sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production” one of its key strategic objectives over the next 15 years (FAO 2011). In the US, as in other countries, making gains in small farm capacity and viability while conserving and enhancing the natural

resource base may require rethinking standard approaches to agricultural research and extension.

Defining a Small Farm

In the seminal report “A Time to Act,” the USDA National Commission on Small Farms defined small farms as “farms with less than $250,000 gross receipts annually on which day-to-day labor and management are provided by the farmer and/or the farm family that owns the production or owns, or leases, the productive assets” (USDA 1998). A new farm typology developed by the USDA Economic Research Service classifies “small family farms” based on Gross Cash Farm Income of less than $350,000 instead of Gross Farm Sales under $250,000 (Hoppe and MacDonald 2013). Under the revised typology, 88% of Washington’s farms would be classified as “small family farms” (USDA 2015). However, since the Gross Cash Farm Income measure was not used for data collection in the 2012 Census of Agriculture and could not be compared with prior census data, we chose to use the original typology for this publication.

While farms vary tremendously by region and by crop, as well as by the amount of income actually netted from gross sales, this guideline can be helpful in categorizing and comparing farms. Classifying farms by acreage can be misleading in a state like Washington, where productivity per acre can differ vastly depending on water availability, type of crop, and the farming strategies employed.

Washington State Small Farm Trends

From the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 89% or 33,228 of the 37,249 farms counted in Washington State can be classified as “small farms,” meaning they reported annual sales of less than $250,000. This number decreased by 5.8% from the 35,269 farms with under $250,000 in sales counted in 2007. Over 45% or 16,900 of farms in Washington reported annual sales below $2,500 (Figure 1). If for purposes of analysis, farms with sales below $2,500 are excluded as “non-commercial,” 20,349 farms remain of which 16,328 have annual farm sales under $250,000. By measure of acreage, 81% of all Washington farms were smaller than 180 acres in size (Figure 2). Washington State’s small farms produce an array of products from fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers to meats, dairy, grains, and seed crops, with total sales valuing $609,461,000 (USDA 2014a).



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