Large white barn and grey silos in green field on a sunny day.

What is (not) a family farm?

By Irena Knezevic, Kelly Bronson, and Chantal Clément

The 2011 Census counted over 200,000 farms in Canada, and of those some 150,000 are family farms.  By definition, a family farm is any farm that is not managed by a commune, cooperative, or a non-family corporation. The diversity of farms that fall under the family farm designation is staggering: from small plots to thousands of acres, from income under $10,000 to over $200,000, from single-product to mixed operations. In practice, the family farm designation excludes only a narrow range of operations, and leaves the definition open to the wonderfully varied mixture of family farms in Canada.

Yet beyond its official definition, what is a Canadian family farm of the 21st century? We looked for answers to this question by speaking to family farmers themselves. Through 36 interviews with self-identified family farmers across Canada, we found that famers themselves have a broad understanding of the term. However, we also uncovered that this ambiguity can work both for and against the furthering of small-scale, sustainable farming operations.

For many, the wider cultural currency associated with the term “family farm”—which is evocative of a bucolic, pastoral setting—is valuable, both for marketing purposes and for farmers’ own ideas about their work and the roles they occupy in their communities. For some, however, the idyllic image that so resonates with the general public doesn’t always reflect the reality of contemporary family farming. Whereas some farmers questioned if very large operations should still be considered family farms, others felt that regardless of the size, family ownership implies a set of community-minded values. As one farmer pointed out to us: “I don’t think it’s wrong to say that people who have a bigger budget or bigger resources [are family farmers]. . . my instant reaction is yeah, it’s owned by the family, it’s family farmed.”

In this sense, ambiguity can be an asset, allowing some farmers to rely on non-family labour, interns, and volunteers, while identifying as a family farm and maintaining the official designation. Understanding one’s own farm as a family operation means that many see their work and operations as a reflection of their family and its role in the community. Another farmer noted:

Family farms are part of the community and can be somewhat more community-based because of the help and support and all that . . . I do see a bit of an intrinsic connection there, it’s not that the two can’t be separated, but I think the mainstream agro-industrial system does quite a good job separating the community from the act of agriculture. . . that image of the family farm, even though it isn’t always a reality in a lot of landscapes anymore is still quite powerful.

However, our interviews also unearthed a shortcoming of the definition as potentially exclusionary. As one farmer put it: “CSAs [community supported agriculture] and farms that are run by cooperatives a lot of times can embody similar principles as what we would associated with a traditional family farm, and I think that form of organization and ownership is certainly not a detriment.”

Red barn in snow covered field under blue sky.Our participants shared their own difficulties reconciling the use of a singular term “family farm” with the very different farming practices it encompasses. They also discussed the continued gender-normative nature of farming work, and offered insightful analyses into the values and benefits associated with family farming. Their opinions on these issues varied, but virtually all shared concerns regarding the economic issues faced by family farmers, regardless of their size.

This research is ongoing but our initial observations suggest that the wide and ambiguous definition of family farming in Canada has for the most part served Canadian farmers well. Instead of boxing the farmers into a particular image, the ambiguity of the term has given them the flexibility to manage their farms in creative and innovative ways. At the same time, it has allowed them to anchor their work in a set of community-minded values while also garnering support from the very communities in which they exist.

Please check the FLEdGE website later this summer for a complete report from our study. For more information contact irena.knezevic@carleton.ca

Dr. Kelly Bronson is the chair of the Science and Technology Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Dr. Chantal Clément is a political scientist and the co-coordinator of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems in Brussels. Dr. Irena Knezevic is an assistant professor in communication, culture and health at Carleton University in Ottawa. Their collaboration explores the social and economic place of family farms in contemporary Canada, the common challenges faced by Canadian family farmers, and the wider cultural, political and technological trends that shape their experiences.