Agriculture statistics - family farming in the EU
Data extracted in October 2019.
Planned article update: March 2023.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines a family farm as ‘… an agricultural holding which is managed and operated by a household and where farm labour is largely supplied by that household’. Family farms are by far the most common type of farm in the European Union (EU), encompassing a wide range of agricultural holdings (hereafter referred to as farms): from small, semi-subsistence farms with only family workers and farms which have to rely on other gainful activities for a diversified source of income, through to much larger, more productive farms which nevertheless are mostly managed by family members.
This article analyses the importance of family farming, the prevalence of family farms in the different Member States and the age and aging of the managers of family farms across the EU. It presents data from the most recent farm structure survey (FSS).
Structural profile of farms - analysis for the EU
Family farms accounted for 19 in every 20 farms across the EU …
Family farms dominate the structure of EU agriculture in terms of their numbers, their contribution to agricultural employment and, to a lesser degree, the area of land that they cultivate and the value of the output they generate. There were 10.5 million farms in the EU in 2016, with the vast majority of them (95.2 %) classified as family farms.
Based on the FAO definition, the term ‘family farm’ is hereafter used to refer to any farm under family management where 50 % or more of the regular agricultural labour force was provided by family workers. A more detailed division can be made between those farms where labour was provided exclusively by the family (farms with only family workers) and those where 50 % or more (but not 100 %) of the labour force were family workers. Most farms (93 %) in the EU in 2016 were farms with only family workers.
Across all the farms in the EU-28, family farms used 81.4 % of the regular agricultural labour force.
… but farmed a little less than two thirds of the total area of agricultural land cultivated.
Family farms cultivated 108.0 million hectares of land in 2016, which represented a little less than two thirds (62.3 %) of the EU-28's utilised agricultural area (UAA) (see Table 1).
Family farms reared 62.5 % of all livestock and produced 59.5 % of the agricultural output in 2016.
Non-family farms represented less than 5% of the EU total number of farms in 2016 but cultivated just over one third of the total utilised agricultural area
In 2016, there were about 509 000 farms in the EU that were not classified as family farms in 2016. Within this total, 176 000 were farms where family workers made up less than 50 % (but not 0 %) of the regular labour force and another 333 000 were farms that had no family labour force at all. Together, these ‘non-family farms’ accounted for 4.9 % of the total number of farms in the EU-28 but cultivated 37.7 % of the utilised agricultural area.
Family farms were, on average, consistently smaller than non-family farms in terms of the utilised agricultural area (see Figure 1); this was particularly true for farms with only family workers. Farms with no family labour force cultivated an average area that was almost 8 times larger than the average area cultivated by farms with only family workers. The farms with no family labour force had the largest average area.
In terms of average economic size, average number of workers and average number of livestock units (in order to facilitate the comparison of livestock data, the different species are converted into livestock units), family farms were also consistently smaller than non-family farms. However, in these cases, the class with the largest size was always the one where family workers made up less than 50 % (but not 0 %) of the regular labour force.
Structural profile of farms - analysis of EU Member States
More than one third of family farms in the EU were located in Romania
There were 9.9 million family farms in the EU-28 in 2016, of which about one third (3.4 million) were located in Romania (see Table 2). A combined one third of the EU total was also located in Poland (1.4 million), Italy (1.1 million) and Spain (0.8 million), the three Member States with the next highest number of family farms.
Family farms in the EU used 108.0 million hectares of land for agricultural production in 2016 (see Table 3). Family farms in Spain used 14.1 million hectares (13.1% of the EU total), the most in any Member State, those in France 12.4 million hectares (11.5 % of the EU total) and family farms in Poland 12.3 million hectares (also 11.5%).
The average size of family farms in Member States varied considerably.
Family farms were, on average, largest in the United Kingdom (68 hectares per holding), followed by Luxembourg (62 hectares per holding) and Denmark (52 hectares per holding). In contrast, the smallest family farms, with an average size of between 1 and 2.5 hectares were in Malta, Cyprus and Romania (see Figure 2).
Family farms accounted for more than 90% of the total number of farms in 18 EU countries
Figures 3 to 7 show the relative importance of family and non-family farms in Member States: data for family farms are presented in dark and light green and non-family farms in dark and light orange.
Family farms accounted for at least 90 % of all farms in 18 of the Member States (see Figure 3), with shares higher than 80 % in all the remaining countries with the exceptions of Estonia (78.6 %) and France (68.3 %).
Family farms covered more than one half of the utilised agricultural area in 22 Member States. The lowest shares were in Slovakia (16.3 %), Czechia (21.9 %) and Bulgaria (22.2 %), much less than the EU-28 average (62.3 %). The highest shares of over 90 % were in Ireland, Malta and Slovenia (see Figure 4).
The labour on family farms was the equivalent of four fiths of all labour on all farms in the EU (see Figure 5). This proportion was lowest in Czechia (27.4 %), Slovakia (28.3 %) and Estonia (42.9 %).
The livestock reared and output generated was higher than 50 % in around two thirds of the Member States.
Family farms reared more than 90 % of the livestock (measured in livestock units) in Ireland, Austria and Slovenia, well above the EU average (62.5 %). In contrast, this share was below 20 % in Slovakia, Czechia and Estonia (see Figure 6).
Family farms also accounted for the vast majority of the value of agricultural output produced by the sector in many Member States (the EU average being 59.5 %) and particularly Ireland (92.8%), Slovenia (89.1%) and Greece (88.4%) (see Figure 7). This too was quite different to the family farms in Slovakia, Czechia and Estonia, that accounted for about or below 20 % of the monetary value of agricultural output produced by the sector.
Farm managers by age
Almost one third of farm managers in the EU-28 were aged 65 years or over.
One of the crucial issues related to family farming is the ageing of farm managers (see Figure 8 and Table 4). This phenomenon poses a serious risk to the sustainable development of family farming. In 2016, 3.3 million farm managers of family farms were aged 65 or over in the EU-28. This was more than one third of the total.
On farms with only family workers, the share of managers aged 65 or over (34.3 %) was much higher than in farms without any family labour (9.3 %). These figures suggest that farm managers working for corporations and cooperatives were much more likely to have stopped managing farms by the age of 65.
However, the percentage of managers aged between 55 and 64 accounted for around one quarter of the total managers in all types of farm.
There were relatively few young farm managers in the EU-28 in 2016 (see Table 4). Managers younger than 40 years old accounted for about 10 % of all managers on farms with only family workers, although this share rose to 17 % in non-family farms.
Young farm managers (aged under 40) of family farms were more common in Luxembourg (26.0 %); Austria (21.7 %) and Poland (20.0 %) than in most Member States. They were far more scarce in Cyprus (2.9 % of all family farm managers) and Portugal (3.3 %), where family farm managers aged 65 or over were relatively common (43.7 % and 50.1 % respectively).
Source data for tables and graphs
All the statistics for farms and farmers were drawn from the Farm Structure Survey for 2016.
Key indicators and concepts
Using data from the latest Farm Structure Survey, and applying the FAO definition for family farms at an operational level, it is possible to analyse farms on the basis of their labour input.
Family farms may be defined as:
- farms with exclusively family labour;
- farms that have predominately family labour (at least 50 % of the regular labour force).
By contrast, non-family farms are defined as:
- farms with predominantly non-family labour (less than 50 % of the regular labour force);
- farms without any family labour.
Labour force data are provided in terms of a simple count of the number of persons as well as being converted into annual work units. Due to the high share of seasonal and part-time work in agriculture, it is generally considered appropriate to assess labour input using data presented in annual work units. One annual work unit corresponds to the work performed by one person who is occupied on a farm on a full-time basis for a full year. Full-time means the minimum hours required by the national provisions governing contracts of employment. If these provisions do not explicitly indicate the number of hours, then 1 800 hours are taken to be the minimum (225 working days of eight hours each).
Utilised agricultural area is the total area taken by arable land, permanent grassland, permanent crops and kitchen gardens used by the holding, regardless of the type of tenure or of whether it is used as a part of common land.
A livestock unit is a reference unit which facilitates the aggregation of livestock from various species and age, through the use of specific coefficients established initially on the basis of the nutritional or feed requirement of each type of animal (with a set of coefficients for 23 different categories of animal). The reference unit used for the calculation of livestock units is one adult dairy cow. For example, a single livestock unit corresponds to 10 sheep or goats.
The standard output of an agricultural product (crop or livestock) is the average monetary value of the agricultural output at farm-gate price, in euro per hectare or per head of livestock. There is a regional standard output coefficient for each product, as an average value over a reference period (5 years, except for the standard output 2004 coefficient calculated using the average of 3 years). The sum of all the standard output per hectare of crop and per head of livestock in a farm is a measure of its overall economic size, expressed in euro. The standard output is used to classify agricultural holdings by type of farming and by economic size.
The FAO [] declared 2014 to be the International year of family farming. As a follow-up to this initiative, the Family Farming Knowledge Platform was created. It gathers information on family farming from all over the world, including national laws and regulations, public policies, best practices, relevant data and statistics, research, articles and publications.
More recently, in 2017, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution which proclaimed the United Nations Decade of Family Farming for the period 2019-2028. Its main objective is to support family farms through a Global Action Plan, which consists of seven pillars of work containing measures on a local and global level.
EU support to family farms through the common agricultural policy (CAP) has also been explicit in the period 2014–2020. The small farmers’ scheme has been part of the post-2013 CAP reforms, providing small farmers with the opportunity to reduce red tape and accept a one-off, lump-sum payment to replace all direct payments. The CAP reforms for 2014–2020 have also promoted greater integration with regional and structural funds. It includes the possibility for small family farmers to receive business start-up aid, with young farmers being eligible for a combination of measures including start-up grants, training and advisory services. All these efforts are designed to support the development of family farming, especially on a smaller (though commercial) scale.
Benefits of family farming
According to FAO family farming preserves traditional food products, while contributing to a balanced diet and safeguarding the world’s agro-biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources. At the same time it also represents an opportunity to boost local economies, especially when combined with specific policies aimed at the social protection and well-being of communities.
Challenges for family farmers
The main challenges facing family farms often reflect issues that are common for all types of small business: access to resources (such as land and capital) or access to markets (particularly in relation to the bargaining power of small farms in the food chain). Demographics provide a social challenge for family farms, as inter-generational succession issues may impact upon the sustainability of family farming. This challenge is further complicated in some of the EU Member States by legislation over inheritance (which may influence land consolidation/fragmentation).
Direct access to
- Agriculture (t_agri), see:
- Farm structure (t_ef)
- Agriculture (agri), see:
- Farm structure (ef)
- Farm structure — 2008 legislation (from 2005 onwards) (ef_main)
- Key farm variables (ef_kv)
- Overview — Farm land use (ef_olu)
- Overview — Farm livestock (ef_ols)
- Overview — Farm labour force (ef_olf)
- Farm land use — Arable land (ef_ala)
- Farm land use — Permanent crops, other farmland, irrigation (ef_po)
- Farm livestock and fodder crops (ef_lsf)
- Farm labour force (ef_lf)
- Other gainful activities and support for rural development (ef_oga)
- Farm management and practises (ef_mp)
- Survey on agricultural production methods (SAPM, 2010) (ef_pm)
- Farm structure – 1988 legislation (1990–2007) (ef_historic)
- Farm structure — 2008 legislation (from 2005 onwards) (ef_main)
- Agriculture, forestry and fishery statistics — 2019 edition (Statistical book)
- Agriculture, forestry and fishery statistics — 2018 edition (Statistical book)
- Agriculture, forestry and fishery statistics — 2017 edition (Statistical book)
- Farm structure (ESMS metadata file — ef_esms)
- Farm structure survey — national methodological reports
- Farm structure survey (FSS) (background article)
- Farm structure survey – survey coverage (background article)
- Regulation (EC) No 1166/2008 on farm structure surveys and the survey on agricultural production methods
- Regulation (EC) No 1200/2009 implementing Regulation (EC) No 1166/2008 on farm structure surveys and the survey on agricultural production methods, as regards livestock unit coefficients and definitions of characteristics