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Farm structure evolution

From Statistics Explained

Data from April 2010. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.

The present article outlines the tendencies from the last three farm structure surveys (2003, 2005 and 2007) carried out in all European Union (EU) Member States as well as in Norway and Switzerland. It presents a brief analysis of the main trends of the key indicators summarised in a few tables and graphs.

In several countries the large number of small units impacts heavily on statistical results, especially those based on the numbers of agricultural holdings (e.g. averages). In order to improve their comparability this analysis focuses on agricultural holdings of at least 1 European size unit (ESU). A brief overview of small holdings is nevertheless given at the end of this article.

Table 1: Number of holdings and growth rate of number of holdings, 2003, 2005, 2007
Figure 1:Number of holdings by country, % change 2003-2007
Figure 2: Average UAA per holding, 2003, 2005, 2007
Figure 3: Average livestock unit per holding (of at least 1 ESU), 2003, 2005, 2007
Figure 4: Average Standard Gross Margin (in ESU) per holding 2003, 2005, 2007
Tabel 2: Labour force per holding (of at least 1 ESU) and key variables per labour force
Figure 5: Holdings by economic size of the holding, 2003-2005-2007
Table 3: Holdings consuming over 50% of own production, 2005-07

The structure of agriculture in the EU Member States varies considerably. Among other factors, this reflects differences in geology, topography, climate and natural resources, as well as the diversity of regional activities, infrastructure and social customs. The 'Survey on the structure of agricultural holdings', also known as the Farm structure survey (FSS), helps assess the agricultural situation across the EU, monitoring trends and transitions in the structure of agricultural holdings, while also modelling the impact of external developments or policy proposals.

Main statistical findings

Agricultural holdings

In the 2003 FSS the number of holdings with at least 1 ESU in the EU-27 was 7.93 million. There has been a general tendency for a decrease in the number of holdings in the last years. For the total EU-27, the decrease was 1.4% between 2003 and 2005, while in 2007 the reduction was even greater reaching 6.5%.

With exception of Slovakia, Greece, Poland, Malta and Slovenia, where the number of holdings have increased in the period 2003 -2007, all other Member States registered a decrease. In the case of the two new Member States (Bulgaria and Romania) and also Portugal the number of agricultural holdings was reduced by over 25% between 2003 and 2007.

The drop in the number of agricultural holdings can be linked to the technical developments of the agricultural sector linked with restructuring of the holdings, as well as the ageing of the holders, often leading to the disappearance of the smaller holdings. This general tendency of abandonment of the smaller units is followed by an increase in the number of the larger holdings.

Utilised agricultural area (UAA)

The total utilised agricultural area (UAA) of EU-27 was around 160 million ha (1.6 million km2), which represents over one third of the territory of the EU in 2007. In the EU-27 as a whole, the UAA has been relatively stable, revealing only a slight decrease (-0.5%) from 2003 to 2007. However, analysing the numbers by member state the situation is very heterogeneous. The highest increases are observed in some of the new Member States, this is the case of Estonia (20.6%), Latvia (18.9%), Lithuania (16.8%), Bulgaria (9%) and Poland (7.5%). This trend can be explained by the new economic and political situation where the incentives of the Common agricultural policy (CAP) intensify the use of land for agriculture . On the other hand, other new Member States have an opposite tendency. It is the case for Romania and Slovakia where the UAA dropped 10.6 and 9.8% respectively. These countries face a deep restructuring process in what concerns their agricultural sectors. Privatization and redistribution of agricultural land are still having a restructuring effect on the agriculture of these new Member States.


As with the average UAA per holding, the average livestock units (LSU) per holding has also increased on average for the total of the EU-27. Even with the decrease of the number of LSU (from 136.4 million in 2003 to 132.6 million in 2007) the average number of LSU per holding has increased from 17.2 in 2003 to 18.1 in 2007. With the exception of Romania, The reduction of LSU per holding occurred in the countries where it was lower (Greece, Slovenia Malta and Cyprus) and also in the Czech Republic and Slovakia where privatisation process in the agricultural sector is reducing the numbers of livestock per farm.

Similarly to the UAA, the four countries that contribute most to the total amount of EU-27 livestock are France (17%), Germany (13.5%), Spain (11%), and the United Kingdom (10.5%). These four Member States represent more than half (52%) of the livestock of the EU-27.
From 2003 to 2007 the changes between the various categories of livestock have not been significant. There is a slight increase of the pig livestock, and a small decrease of the poultry and rabbits.

If we analyse the figures by country and livestock type, we can perceive some tendencies. The importance of cattle in the percentage of livestock has reduced in the "old" Member States. In Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands the percentage of cattle in the total amount of LSU has reduced by more than 2 percentual points. Norway also reduced the percentage of cattle from 52.9 to 50.2% from 2003 to 2007. On the contrary, the new MS have increased the share of cattle. An increase of 2 percentage points or more of the share of cattle was observed for Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia. Portugal with an increase of 3.7 percentage points, and Estonia with a decrease of 2.3 percentage points are the exceptions to the rule. In Luxembourg and Ireland more than 80% of the total LSU belongs to the cattle category.

More than half (57.4%) of the livestock of Greece are sheep and goats. In this category, there has been a great increase in Romania from 13% to 19.8% from 2003 to 2007 and in Cyprus the sheep and goats have dropped from 24.3 to 21.3% in the share of total livestock.

Economic size

In spite of the general reduction of the crop area and of livestock, from 2003 to 2007, the total standard gross margin (SGM) has increased from 145 million to almost 152 million ESU (174 000 to 182 400 million €). France, Germany and Italy combined represent almost half (47% in 2007) of the total SGM of the EU-27, and this percentage has been stable since 2003. On average the European agricultural holding has raised from 18.3 ESU (21 960 €) in 2003, to 20.8 ESU (24 960€) in 2007.

The change in SGM is very diverse within the countries. There are 16 EU countries with a positive evolution in which the SGM has increased from 2003 to 2007. Among these countries 9 belong to the new Member States. The Baltic countries have had particularly outstanding increases: Lithuania (47.7%), Estonia (41.0%) and Latvia (36.5%). On the other side, Malta (-34.4%), Romania (-32.5%), Portugal (-22.7%), United Kingdom (-13.4%), Germany (-12.9%) and Ireland (-10.6%) have all had a decrease of over 10%.

In what concerns the average SGM per holding, there is also considerable heterogeneity amongst the countries. In 2007 the average SGM per holding in Romania was 3 ESU (3600 €) while in the Netherlands it was 111.3 ESU (133 560 €). The analysis of the change in the average SGM per holding, between 2003 and 2007, showed that 20 of the EU MS and Norway have had an increase.

Labour force

In what regards the labour force, the FSS results for the EU-27 in 2007 show that 16.4 million persons worked regularly on the 7.3 million agricultural holdings of at least 1 ESU. There has been a clear reduction in the number of persons working in agriculture from 2003 to 2007 (-11.8%).

Farm work (including work by the non-regular labour force) in 2007 represented 9.0 million annual work units (AWU), i.e. the equivalent of 9 million people working full-time.
75.5% AWU on the holdings came from the family labour force. In all the countries, with the exception of Malta (where the AWU was the same) and Poland (with a 3.3% increase), there was a decrease in the AWU from 2003 to 2007. The family labour force became more significant in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia (again due to the privatisation in agriculture structure), contrary to the situation in Bulgaria, Austria and Poland where the share of non-family labour force has increased from 2003 to 2007.

Small holdings

Until now this part of the article has only been focusing on the agricultural holdings with a SGM of over 1 ESU (1200 €). In this sub-chapter the analysis will be done using the total number of holdings included in the three last FSS, with a focus on the importance of the small holdings (holdings with a SGM under 1 ESU). Although in 2007 they only accounted for 7% of the UAA, 2.5% of the total LSU and 1.6% of the SGM of EU-27, they cannot be overlooked when investigating the social structure of European agriculture, since they account for 47% of the holdings, 39% of the regular farm workers and 23% of the total farm work (AWU).

  • The total number of small holdings sums up to slightly over 13.7 million when we include the all of the holdings obtained in FSS 2007. Close to half (6.3 million) of the holdings are under the 1 ESU threshold. In the EU-27 there has been a gradual decrease (-10% in EU 27) of the number of holdings with less than 1 ESU and an increase (10% in EU-27) in the higher economic class (over 100 ESU). This trend is contradicted in some MS where there is an opposite development, as is the case of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark. These countries have seen the number of their small farms increase while the number of the larger ones has decreased. In 7 of the 12 new MS (Romania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania) the farms with less than 1 ESU represented more than half of the holdings counted in the FSS 2007. In 2007 the Romanian farms under 1ESU represented 23% of the total number of the EU agricultural holdings. The tendency in the Romania farm structure is the reduction of the number of the farms in all of the economic size categories, but overall the percentage of the smaller farms in the total number of farms has grown from 73 to 78% from 2003 to 2007.
    Since 2005, the Netherlands do not include farms with less that 1 ESU in the FSS, because they do not represent more than 1 % of the economic agricultural activity, and therefore can be excluded from the universe. In other MS, such as Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and Finland these small farms have very little significance, being always under 5% of the total farms and summing up to less than 4000 holdings altogether.
  • In the EU-27, the total UAA of the holdings with less than 1 ESU reaches 11.6 million ha in 2007, which represents 6.8% of the total UAA. This percentage in 2007 varies from close to zero percent (0.02%) in Norway to up to 31 % in Romania. In addition to Romania there are six other MS where the percentage of UAA covered by the small farms is higher than 10%, (Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Malta, United Kingdom and Poland). The old MS in this group owe their high percentage to the extensive grassland farms, where in general there is no livestock (they therefore contribute to the structure without having actual production). Both Austria and the United Kingdom also have the highest UAA per holding in the category less than 1 ESU (17.8 and 14.8 ha respectively). The holdings with less than 1 ESU in Bulgaria, Malta and Hungary all have the average UAA per holding below 0.5 ha.
    Although the number of farms with less than 1 ESU has decreased from 2003 to 2007, the corresponding UAA has increased, which has boosted the average UAA per holding of this type of farms.
  • In what concerns the livestock figures, the holdings with less than 1 ESU follow the general tendency of decrease in the number of LSU. In fact from 2003 to 2007, the total LSU on holdings with less than 1 ESU fell by 26%. Although presenting a clear reduction of the number of LSU since 2003, the small holdings in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary present, in 2007, the highest EU-27 values in the percentage of their total national LSU (31%, 26% and 13 % respectively). Unlike the UAA per holding, which has increased in the small farms, the LSU per holding has dropped in the EU 27 average between 2003 and 2007.
  • The economic importance of the holding with less than 1 ESU is very small compared with the SGM of the total farms (1.61%). The percentage of the small holdings' SGM in the total SGM of the EU-27 has decreased from 2003 to 2007. The figures for Romania continue to stand out from the rest of the countries; these semi-subsistence or subsistence farms represent almost one third of the SGM of Romanian agriculture, according to FSS 2007 results. In Bulgaria and Lithuania the share of the small farms' SGM is around 12%, in all the other countries this value is under 10%. The SGM per holding in the farms with less than 1 ESU has decreased between 2003 and 2007. The average EU-27 small farm has a SGM value of 0.39 ESU (468 €), ranging from 0.13 ESU (156 €) in the United Kingdom to 0.70 (840 €) ESU in Germany.
    According to the FSS 2007 figures, the holdings with less than 1 ESU represented 23% of the European agricultural labour force, i.e. 2.7 million AWU. Seven new MS are Above the EU-27 average, of which Romania and Bulgaria (with 56% and 55% respectively). For EU-27 the percentage of AWU from small farms has been stable throughout the three surveys (2003, 2005 and 2007).
    The labour intensity of the small farms has also been stable at EU-27 level, registering only a slight decrease from 0.44 AWU in 2003 and 2005 to 0.42 AWU in 2007. But at national level there are many differences in the number of AWU per small farm and also in the changes over time. The AWU per holding varied 0.06 AWU in Malta to 1 AWU in Norway in 2007. Small farms occupy more than half of a full time worker during a full year in 11 countries.
  • When analysing the number of persons that work on small farms the situation changes and the values indicate a stronger impact of these holdings in the general agriculture structure of the EU. Close to 40 % of the persons working in the European holdings work in a farm with less than 1 ESU, which in absolute numbers corresponds to over 10 million people. Compared to the figures of the AWU, there has been a stronger tendency for the reduction of the share of persons working on the small farms between 2003 and 2007.    The average number of persons working on farms with less than 1 ESU was 1.6 in 2007. This indicator has shown similar values over the years with exception of the Czech Republic and the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Finland) and Sweden where the number of persons per holding in the small farms has increased considerably.
    On average, a person working on a small farm in the EU works 26% of his full time working days, while on the farms with a SGM of at least 1 ESU this percentage is 55%.
  • In FSS 2005 and 2007 the number of farms producing mainly for own consumption (consuming over 50% of their production) was surveyed in 16 of the 27 EU countries where this characteristic was significant, which includes all the new Member States and the old Mediterranean Member States (Greece , Italy , Spain and Portugal). With the exception of Malta, the percentage of holdings consuming more than 50% of their production was higher in the size class under 1 ESU than in the total of the holdings. The figures in table 1.4.7 contribute to point out the farm structure situation and the divergence between the EU-15 and the new MS. The subsistence and semi-subsistence farming is a major component of the agricultural structure of the NMS-12. The FSS has recorded an overall decrease in the total number of these farms (-8%) from 2005 to 2007, however, in the farms under 1 ESU this reduction was smaller (-4%).

Data sources and availability

The data come from the Farm structure surveys:

  • an agricultural census is carried out by Member States every 10 years (basic surveys);
  • intermediate sample surveys are carried out two or three times between these basic surveys.

The Member States collect information from individual agricultural holdings and, observing strict rules of confidentiality, data are forwarded to Eurostat. The information collected covers:

  • land use;
  • livestock numbers;
  • rural development;
  • management and farm labour input (including age, gender and relationship to the holder).

The survey data are then aggregated to different geographic levels (Member States, regions, and for basic surveys also districts) and arranged by size class, area status, legal status of holding, objective zone and farm type.

The basic unit underlying the FSS is the agricultural holding, a technical-economic unit under single management engaged in agricultural production. The FSS covers all agricultural holdings with a utilised agricultural area (UAA) of at least one hectare (ha) and those holdings with a UAA of less than 1 ha if their market production exceeds certain natural thresholds.


The purpose of Community surveys on the structure of agricultural holdings, also referred to as Farm Structure Surveys (FSS), is to regularly provide reliable data on the structure of agricultural holdings in the European Union, in particular on land use, livestock and farm labour force. Every ten years since 1970 a basic survey is carried out as an agricultural census. Three intermediate surveys are conducted between two basic ones, i.e. with an interval of two or three years. They are conducted as sample surveys in most of the MS. The next census (2009/2010) is now being conducted and the first results will be available in the summer of 2011.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

Structure of agricultural holdings (t_ef)


Structure of agricultural holdings (ef)
Overview of agricultural holdings (ef_ov)
Land Use (ef_lu)
Livestock (ef_ls)
Special interest topics (ef_so)
Standard gross margin (SGM) coefficients used for typology (ef_tsgm)
Standard output (SO) coefficients used for typology (ef_tso)
Structure of agricultural holdings by region, main indicators (ef_r_main)

Dedicated section


Other information

  • Commission Decision 85/377/EEC of 7 June 1985 establishing a Community typology for agricultural holdings
  • Commission decision 115/2000 of 24 November 1999 relating to the definitions of the characteristics, the list of agricultural products, the exceptions to the definitions and the regions and districts regarding the surveys on the structure of agricultural holdings
  • Farm structure survey
  • Regulation 571/88 of 29 February 1988 on the organization of Community surveys on the structure of agricultural holdings between 1988 and 1997

Source data for tables, figures and maps on this page (MS Excel)

External links