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When Americans talk about farmers what do they mean?

In Britain a 'farmer' is someone who either owns the land that he or she works, or is the tenant of the land. It is the person who decides what crops to grow and has overall management of the enterprise.

People who work the land as employees of the farm are known variously as farm workers, agricultural labourers, or simply employees.

I have the sense that when Americans talk about farmers they mean something wider than we do. Is that the case?

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    20.5K rep means a pass on reporting no research? Interesting. Anyhow, here in the U.S. the decision on what crops to plant seems to be mostly left up to the Monsanto corporation and their hireling pols in Washington, sad to say. – Brian Donovan Feb 21 '15 at 21:59
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    @WS2 - If the person in question is not the "owner" of the business but "manages" a farm on behalf of someone else -- telling others what to do and deciding when to buy and sell stuff -- then he would probably call himself a "farm manager". But if he is the principal person who literally gets up on the tractor and plows the fields he's probably a "farmer". But, once again, no one is checking what people call themselves. – Hot Licks Feb 21 '15 at 22:06
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    @tchrist I didn't have any specific examples in mind other than the recent question on this site which contained an extract that said in 1880, 78% of the American population were 'farmers'. But I have previously had the general impression that 'farmer' was used more liberally in America. – WS2 Feb 21 '15 at 22:09
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My grandfather raised beef cattle (Aberdeen Angus) on an 87-acre farm in central Texas, and I remember asking him once why he didn't refer to himself as a "rancher." He laughed and said that anyone who owned less than a hundred acres of land and called himself a rancher was just kidding himself. In Texas (and I assume elsewhere in the United States) you could qualify for membership in the state's Cattlemen's Association whether you ran a farm or a ranch.

As for the question of who qualified as a farmer, I believe that in Texas the main distinctions were between owning or leasing a farm (which made you a farmer), working on a single farm that someone else owned and operated (which made you a hired hand), and working on many farms at harvest season (which made you a member of, say, a hay-baling crew, if that was the job you did, or a migrant worker, if you picked cotton or fruits or vegetables at multiple farms each harvest season and followed the ripening crops northward as the season progressed).

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I believe the usage varies with community.

For the vast majority of Americans, who live in urban or suburban communities, a farmer is anyone who makes a living by agricultural labor. This would include farm laborers (called farmhands or ranch hands in the US). Ownership/tenancy is irrelevant.

Within rural communities, I believe the UK distinction is made.

ETA - Upon further reflection, I'll modify this to exclude those who raise animals, especially meat cows (oops - beef cattle). Urban/suburban Americans will probably call these folk, both ranchers and ranch hands, cowboys. Those who raise dairy cows are called farmers. For other animals, such as sheep, I doubt that there is a single term which is widely used. Some would call these farmers, some shepherds.

  • This was my suspicion, but @tchrist tends to the view that the word has much the same meaning as in the UK. – WS2 Feb 22 '15 at 9:39
  • @WS2 I grew up in a rural environment. – tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 14:21
  • @tchrist You will appreciate Thomas Hardy then! – WS2 Feb 22 '15 at 14:33
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I think "farmer" is used casually by people, especially those from urban areas, to refer to those in some vague agricultural occupation. If the conversation gets at all specific, however, it will sound odd to refer to a day laborer or migrant worker, etc. as a "farmer". Instead the term will change to one of these or to something like "farmhand". Eg.:

"Didn't you say your brother is a farmer?"

"Well, he's trying to be. He got a job on an organic ranch and he's hoping to work his way up."

Maybe along these lines.

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One difference I've noticed in America lately is a seeming merger of "farm" woth "ranch". I used to think that animals are raised on a ranch, and crops on a farm. But maybe animals that cannot roam to graze are "farm animals"?

In America there is also the term "factory farms" to refer to operations where animals are forced to spend their whole lives imprisoned in inhumanely close quarters.

Anyway, eggs from a chicken ranch are often labeled "farm fresh". And I have heard a radio commercial in California in which a guy described himself as owning an "avocado ranch"! I immediately thought of applying for work herding avocados; it seems it would be easy. I think city folk just don't understand distinctions between farm, ranch, and orchard.

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    There are no "ranches" east of the Mississippi, but there are many cattle farms. – Hot Licks Feb 22 '15 at 4:20
  • I guess that would make sense, since "ranch" is from Spanish, and the Spanish/Mexican influence did not reach east of the Mississippi (except for naming Florida). – Brian Hitchcock Feb 22 '15 at 9:13
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    In Texas at least, the term "dairy ranch" is little used, even though dairy cattle generally need as much grazing land as beef cattle do. It is far more common to speak of dairy cattle as being raised on "dairy farms," even if the "farm" is ranch-size. As for "chicken ranch," the only time I heard that term used was as the name of a famous brothel in Fayette County, Texas, that was closed down when I was still a lad. Anyone claiming to run a "chicken ranch" in central Texas would undoubtedly have raised some eyebrows and some laughs among the country folk. – Sven Yargs Feb 22 '15 at 9:18
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    Obviously the word ranch is foreign to Europe (except perhaps in Spain). In Britain we have arable farms (crops only), beef farms, dairy farms, 'hill farms' (sheep), and mixed farms. Intensive battery farming of hens is unpopular with consumers, who pay a premium for 'free range' eggs and poultry. The word orchard is not normally used in farming ( it is a more domestic word e.g with large houses). Fruit and vegetable farming is known as 'market gardening'. – WS2 Feb 22 '15 at 9:53
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    UK people familiar with the daily radio soap The Archers, (which has run daily since 1951, and is an unavoidable part of British life) will know that David Archer, Tony Archer and Brian Aldridge are farmers. Neil Carter is a pigman who has risen (almost) to manager status. One-time farmers, the Grundies, are in essence now farm hands. The distinction is as much social, but the underlying criterion is ownership. – WS2 Feb 22 '15 at 10:16

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