On the surface, labels are convenient. They organize items, people, even farms into clean, tidy categories, or so the theory goes.

The problem is the definitions are not always equally clean and tidy. It’s well defined and understood what a teacher or a pilot does, because the public readily crosses paths with those professions. But today, the public no longer crosses paths with folks in agriculture. Consequently, they have little idea beyond story books what a farmer or rancher does, much less what constitutes a “family farm”.

Today, the labels factory farm and family farm are tossed about freely and easily, yet with conviction. They are used to pass judgment about what is wholesome, fair and right.

But, what constitutes a family farm? The definition literally depends on the individual—even amongst those of us in agriculture.

Often people point to the farmer’s market vendor as a family farm. In reality, that may or may not be the case, depending on the market and where the vendor gets his or her products. Just as often any farm producing organic or natural goods is granted the same consideration, even though a growing number of those are large corporations.

That raises another reasonable point, for tax purposes and any number of other reasons farms and ranches, regardless of size, organize as corporations, limited liability partnerships or other business structures. Are they family farms?

Is a farmer who raises hogs on contract for another producer on a farmstead that’s been in his family for four generations a family farm? Is a second-generation farm now owned by four siblings, but who rent the land out still a family farm?

Then there’s the size issue; at what point is a farm too big to be a family farm? I would argue that size doesn’t matter.

The 20-cow dairy involving a husband, wife and three kids is a family farm. But so is the dairy owned by two adult brothers who milk 3,000 cows, which involves their families and 15 employees.

Size should not be part of the family farm equation and agriculture needs to support each other more broadly and speak more uniformly. There have always been big farms and ranches and small farms and ranches, one is not right and the other wrong. Both can survive and both can fail. As with any business, the key is to find a niche and fill it, just don’t drag others down in the effort. If global food production is to more than double by 2050, there’s enough work to be done by everyone.

By the way, anyone who’s trying to support himself/herself, a family or pay bills with the farm or ranch is running a business, otherwise it’s a hobby. That word “business” is another one that cuts against the grain of many people’s idea of a family farm. My father, who had 160 acres, a dairy herd, a swine herd and an immaculate set of farm-account books would certainly bristle at such nonsense.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has released “Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2010 Edition.” It sorted family farms by three annual sales categories (less than $250,000, $250,000 to $499,999 and $500,000 or more). Reflecting 2007 numbers, the report points out that 98 percent of U.S. farms are family operations and even the largest farms are predominantly family run. Most consumers would be shocked to hear that, but it’s a message they dearly need to receive.

Creating a clear, accurate definition is a messy business, so it’s much easier to make it up as you go along in accordance with your own ideals. Of course, that does nothing to promote communication and understanding—two things that agriculture and food production could use a lot more of these days.