Farmer or Rancher
- Modern farming requires knowledge of new developments in agriculture, often gained through growing up on a farm or through postsecondary education.
- Overall employment is projected to decline because of increasing productivity and consolidation of farms.
- Small-scale, local farming, particularly horticulture and organic farming, offer the best opportunities for entering the occupation.
American farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers direct the activities of one of the world's largest and most productive agricultural sectors. They produce enough food and fiber to meet the needs of the United States and for export. Farmers and ranchers own and operate mainly family-owned farms. They also may lease land from a landowner and operate it as a working farm. Agricultural managers manage the day-to-day activities of one or more farms, ranches, nurseries, timber tracts, greenhouses, or other agricultural establishments for farmers, absentee landowners, or corporations. While their duties and responsibilities vary widely, all farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers focus on the business aspects of running a farm. On small farms, they may oversee the entire operation; on larger farms, they may oversee a single activity, such as marketing.
Farm output and income are strongly influenced by the weather, disease, fluctuations in prices of domestic farm products, and Federal farm programs. In crop-production operations, farmers and managers usually determine the best time to plant seed, apply fertilizer and chemicals, and harvest and market the crops. Many carefully plan the combination of crops they grow, so that if the price of one crop drops, they will have sufficient income from another crop to make up the loss. Farmers, ranchers, and managers monitor the constantly changing prices for their products. They use different strategies to protect themselves from unpredictable changes in the markets for agricultural products. If they plan ahead, they may be able to store their crops or keep their livestock to take advantage of higher prices later in the year. Those who participate in the futures market enter contracts on future delivery of agricultural goods. These contracts can minimize the risk of sudden price changes by guaranteeing a certain price for farmers' and ranchers' agricultural goods when they are ready to sell.
While most farm output is sold to food-processing companies, some farmers—particularly operators of smaller farms—may choose to sell their goods directly to consumers through farmers' markets. Some use cooperatives to reduce their financial risk and to gain a larger share of the prices consumers pay. For example, in community-supported agriculture, cooperatives sell shares of a harvest to consumers prior to the planting season. This frees the farmer from having to bear all the financial risks and ensures a market for the produce of the coming season. Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers also negotiate with banks and other credit lenders to get the best financing deals for their equipment, livestock, and seed.
Like other businesses, farming operations have become more complex in recent years, so many farmers use computers to keep financial and inventory records. They also use computer databases and spreadsheets to manage breeding, dairy, and other farm operations.
The type of farm managers operate determines their specific tasks. On crop farms—farms growing grain, cotton, other fibers, fruit, and vegetables—farmers are responsible for preparing, tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting. After the harvest, they make sure that the crops are properly packaged, stored, and marketed. Livestock, dairy, and poultry farmers and ranchers feed and care for animals and keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean and in good condition. They also plan and oversee breeding and marketing activities. Both farmers and ranchers operate machinery and maintain equipment and facilities, and both track technological improvements in animal breeding and seeds, and choose new or existing products.
The size of the farm or ranch often determines which of these tasks farmers and ranchers handle themselves. Operators of small farms usually perform all tasks, physical and administrative. They keep records for management and tax purposes, service machinery, maintain buildings, and grow vegetables and raise animals. Operators of large farms, by contrast, have employees who help with the physical work. Although employment on most farms is limited to the farmer and one or two family workers or hired employees, some large farms have 100 or more full-time and seasonal workers. Some of these employees are in nonfarm occupations, working as truck drivers, sales representatives, bookkeepers, and computer specialists.
Agricultural managers usually do not plant, harvest, or perform other production activities; instead, they hire and supervise farm and livestock workers, who perform most daily production tasks. Managers may establish output goals; determine financial constraints; monitor production and marketing; hire, assign, and supervise workers; determine crop transportation and storage requirements; and oversee maintenance of the property and equipment.
Horticultural specialty farmers oversee the production of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants used in landscaping, including turf. They also grow nuts, berries, and grapes for wine. Aquaculture farmers raise fish and shellfish in marine, brackish, or fresh water, usually in ponds, floating net pens, raceways, or recirculating systems. They stock, feed, protect, and otherwise manage aquatic life sold for consumption or used for recreational fishing.
Work environment. Farmers and farm managers on crop farms usually work from sunrise to sunset during the planting and harvesting seasons. The rest of the year, they plan next season's crops, market their output, and repair machinery.
On livestock-producing farms and ranches, work goes on throughout the year. Animals, unless they are grazing, must be fed and watered every day, and dairy cows must be milked two or three times a day. Many livestock and dairy farmers monitor and attend to the health of their herds, which may include assisting in the birthing of animals. Such farmers and farm managers rarely get the chance to get away, unless they hire an assistant or arrange for a temporary substitute.
Farmers and farm managers who grow produce and perishables have different demands on their time depending on the crop grown and the season. They may work very long hours during planting and harvesting season, but shorter hours at other times. Some farmers maintain cover crops during the cold months, which keep them busy beyond the typical growing season.
On very large farms, farmers and farm managers spend substantial time meeting farm supervisors in charge of various activities. Professional farm managers overseeing several farms may divide their time between traveling to meet farmers or landowners and planning the farm operations in their offices. As farming practices and agricultural technology become more sophisticated, farmers and farm managers are spending more time in offices and on computers, where they electronically manage many aspects of their businesses. Some farmers also attend conferences exchanging information, particularly during the winter months.
Farm work can be hazardous. Tractors and other farm machinery can cause serious injury, and workers must be constantly alert on the job. The proper operation of equipment and handling of chemicals are necessary to avoid accidents, safeguard health, and protect the environment.
Training, Qualifications, and Advancement
Experience gained from growing up on or working on a family farm is the most common way farmers learn their trade. However, modern farming requires making increasingly complex scientific, business, and financial decisions, so postsecondary education in agriculture is important, even for people who were raised on farms.
Education and training. Most farmers receive their training on the job, often by being raised on a farm. However, the completion of a 2-year associate degree or a 4-year bachelor's degree at a college of agriculture is becoming increasingly important for farm managers and for farmers and ranchers who expect to make a living at farming.
Students should select the college most appropriate to their interests and location. All State university systems have at least one land-grant college or university with a school of agriculture. Common programs of study include business with a concentration in agriculture, farm management, agronomy, dairy science, agricultural economics and business, horticulture, crop and fruit science, and animal science. For students interested in aquaculture, formal programs are available and include coursework in fisheries biology, fish culture, hatchery management and maintenance, and hydrology.
Agricultural colleges teach technical knowledge of crops, growing conditions, and plant diseases. They also teach prospective ranchers and dairy farmers the basics of veterinary science and animal husbandry. Students also study how the environment is affected by farm operations, such as the impact of various pesticides on local animals.
New farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers often spend time working under an experienced farmer to learn how to apply the skills learned through academic training. Those without academic training often take many years to learn how weather, fertilizers, seed, feeding or breeding affect the growth of crops or the raising of animals in addition to other aspects of farming. A small number of farms offer formal apprenticeships to help young people learn the practical skills of farming and ranching.
Other qualifications. Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need managerial skills to organize and operate a business. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping is essential in keeping financial records, and knowledge of credit sources is vital for buying seed, fertilizer, and other needed inputs. Workers must also be familiar with safety regulations and requirements of governmental agricultural support programs. Computer skills are becoming increasingly important, especially on large farms, where they are widely used for recordkeeping and business analysis. In addition, skills in personnel management, communication, and conflict resolution are important in the operation of a farm or ranch business.
Mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with tools of all kinds also are valuable skills for a small-farm operator, who often maintains and repairs machinery or farm structures.
Certification and advancement. Because of rapid changes in the industry, farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need to stay informed about continuing advances in agricultural methods, both in the United States and abroad. They need to monitor changes in governmental regulations that may affect production methods or markets for particular crops. Agricultural managers can enhance their professional status through voluntary certification as an Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Accreditation requires several years of farm management experience, the appropriate academic background—a bachelor's degree or, preferably, a master's degree in a field of agricultural science—and passing courses and examinations related to the business, financial, and legal aspects of farm and ranch management.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers held more than 1.2 million jobs in 2008. Nearly 80 percent were self-employed farmers and ranchers, and the remainder were wage and salary agricultural managers. Most farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers oversee crop production activities, while others manage livestock and dairy production.
The soil, topography of the land, and climate often determine the type of farming and ranching done in a particular area. California, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota are the leading agricultural States in terms of agricultural output measured in dollars. Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kentucky are the leading agricultural States in terms of numbers of farms.
Overall employment is projected to decline, reflecting the decline of self-employed farmers because of the consolidation of farms and increasing productivity; however, employment of salaried agricultural managers is expected to increase.
Employment change. Employment of self-employed farmers is expected to decline moderately by 8 percent over the 2008–18 decade. The continuing ability of the agriculture sector to produce more with fewer workers will cause some farmers to go out of business as market pressures leave little room for the marginally successful farmer. As land, machinery, seed, and chemicals become more expensive, only well-capitalized farmers and corporations will be able to buy many of the farms that become available. These larger, more productive farms are better able to withstand the adverse effects of climate and price fluctuations on farm output and income. Larger farms also have advantages in obtaining government subsidies and payments because these payments are usually based on acreage owned and per-unit production.
In contrast, agricultural managers are projected to gain jobs, growing by about 6 percent, slower than the average for all occupations. Owners of large tracts of land, who often do not live on the property they own, increasingly will seek the expertise of agricultural managers to run their farms and ranches in a business-like manner.
Despite the expected continued consolidation of farmland and the projected decline in overall employment of this occupation, an increasing number of small-scale farmers have developed successful market niches that involve personalized, direct contact with their customers. Many are finding opportunities in horticulture and organic food production, which are among the fastest growing segments of agriculture. Others use farmers' markets that cater directly to urban and suburban consumers, allowing the farmers to capture a greater share of consumers' food dollars. Some small-scale farmers belong to collectively owned marketing cooperatives that process and sell their product. Other farmers participate in community-supported agriculture cooperatives that allow consumers to buy a share of the farmer's harvest directly.
Job prospects. Fewer jobs are expected for farmers and ranchers than in the past; better prospects are expected for wage and salary agricultural managers. Small-scale, local farming, particularly horticulture and organic farming, offer the best opportunities for entering the occupation. With fewer people wanting to become farmers and a large number of farmers expected to retire or give up their farms in the next decade, there will be some opportunities to own or lease a farm. Additionally, the market for agricultural products is projected to be good for most products over the next decade, so many farmers who retire will need to be replaced. Farmers who grow crops used in landscaping, such as trees, shrubs, turf, and other ornamentals, also will have better job prospects, as people put more money into landscaping their homes and businesses.
Some private organizations are helping to make farmland available and affordable for new farmers through a variety of institutional innovations. Land Link programs, coordinated by the International Farm Transition Network, operate in 20 States. They help match up young farmers with farmers approaching retirement so that arrangements can be made to pass along their land to young farmers wishing to keep the land under cultivation. Often beginning farmers lease some or all of their farmland. Sometimes, a new farmer will work on a farm for a few years, while the farm owner gradually transfers ownership to the new farmer.
Incomes of farmers and ranchers vary greatly from year to year, because prices of farm products fluctuate with weather conditions and other factors that influence the quantity and quality of farm output and the demand for those products. In addition to farm business income, farmers often receive government subsidies or other payments that supplement their incomes and reduce some of the risk of farming. Many farmers—primarily operators of small farms—have recently been relying more and more on off-farm sources of income.
Self-employed farmers must procure their own health and life insurance. As members of farm organizations, they may receive group discounts on health and life insurance premiums.
For More Information
For general information about farming and agricultural occupations, contact:
- National FFA Organization, Attention: Career Information Requests, P.O. Box 68690, Indianapolis, IN 46268-0960. Internet: http://www.ffa.org
For information about certification as an accredited farm manager, contact:
- American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, 950 Cherry St., Suite 508, Denver, CO 80246- 2664. Internet: http://www.asfmra.org
For information on the USDA's program to help small farmers get started, contact:
- Family and Small Farm Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Stop 2201, Washington, DC 20250-2201. Internet: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/smallfarms.cfm
For information on Land Link Programs, contact:
- The Beginning Farm Center, 10861 Douglas Avenue, Suite B, Urbandale, IA 50322-2042. Internet: http://www.farmtransition.org/netwpart.html
- Center for Rural Affairs, 145 Main Street PO Box 136, Lyons, NE 68038-2677. Internet: http://www.cfra.org/resources/beginning_farmer
For information on organic farming, horticulture, and internships, contact:
- Alternative Farming System Information Center, NAL, 10301 Baltimore Ave., Room 132, Beltsville, MD 20705-2326. Internet: http://www.nal.usda.gov
- ATTRA, National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville, AR 72702-3657. Internet: http://www.attra.ncat.org