Duties and working conditions vary widely, from raising plants
in greenhouses, to harvesting crops and tending to livestock
outdoors, to inspecting agricultural products at border crossings.
Farmworkers learn through short-term on-the-job training;
agricultural inspectors and animal breeders require work experience
or a college degree.
Most farmworkers receive low pay and perform strenuous work
outdoors in all kinds of weather but many enjoy the rural lifestyle.
Employment is projected to decline slightly.
Nature of the Work
Agricultural workers play a large role in getting food, plants,
and other agricultural products to market. Working mostly on farms
or ranches or in nurseries, slaughterhouses, or ports of entry,
these workers have numerous and diverse duties. Among their activities
are planting and harvesting crops, installing irrigation, delivering
animals, and making sure that our food is safe.
More than 8 out of 10 agricultural workers are farmworkers and
laborers. Farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse
perform numerous activities related to growing and harvesting
grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fiber, trees, shrubs, and other
crops. Among their activities are planting and seeding, pruning,
irrigating, harvesting, and packing and loading crops for shipment.
Farmworkers also apply pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers
to crops; repair fences; and help with irrigation. Nursery and
greenhouse workers prepare land or greenhouse beds for growing
horticultural products, such as trees, plants, flowers, and sod.
Their duties include planting, watering, pruning, weeding, and
spraying the plants. They may cut, roll, and stack sod; stake
trees; tie, wrap, and pack plants to fill orders; and dig up or
move field-grown and containerized shrubs and trees.
Farmworkers, farm and ranch animals care for live farm,
ranch, or aquacultural animals that may include cattle, sheep,
swine, goats, horses, poultry, finfish, shellfish, and bees. The
animals are usually raised to supply such products as meat, fur,
skins, feathers, eggs, milk, and honey. The farmworkers’ duties
may include feeding, watering, herding, grazing, castrating, branding,
debeaking, weighing, catching, and loading animals. On dairy farms,
farmworkers operate milking machines; they also may maintain records
on animals, examine animals to detect diseases and injuries, assist
in delivering animals at their birth, and administer medications,
vaccinations, or insecticides as appropriate. Daily duties of
such farmworkers include cleaning and maintaining animal housing
Other farmworkers known as agricultural equipment operators
operate a variety of farm equipment used in plowing, sowing, maintaining,
and harvesting agricultural products. The equipment may include
tractors, fertilizer spreaders, haybines, raking equipment, balers,
combines, and threshers, as well as trucks. These farmworkers
also operate machines used in moving and treating crops after
their harvest, such as conveyor belts, loading machines, separators,
cleaners, and dryers. In addition, they may make adjustments and
minor repairs to equipment. When not operating machines, agricultural
equipment operators may perform other farm duties that are not
typical of other farmworkers.
Agricultural inspectors, another type of agricultural
worker, are employed by Federal and State governments to ensure
compliance with laws and regulations governing the health, quality,
and safety of agricultural commodities. Inspectors also make sure
that the facilities and equipment used in processing the commodities
meet quality standards. Meat safety is one of their prime responsibilities,
and they try to ensure that the meat we eat is free of harmful
ingredients or bacteria. In meat-processing facilities, inspectors
may collect samples of suspected diseased animals or materials
and send the samples to a laboratory for identification and analysis.
They also may inspect livestock to help determine the effectiveness
of medication and feeding programs. Some inspectors are stationed
at export and import sites to weigh and inspect agricultural shipments
leaving and entering the country to ensure the quality and quantity
of the shipments. A few work at logging sites, making sure that
safety regulations are enforced.
Graders and sorters of agricultural products examine agricultural
commodities being prepared to be packed for market and classify
them according to quality or size guidelines. They grade, sort,
or classify unprocessed food and other agricultural products by
size, weight, color, or condition and discard inferior or defective
products. For example, graders sort eggs by color and size and
also examine the fat content, or marbling, of beef, assigning
a grade of “Prime,” “Choice,” or something else, as appropriate.
The grade that is assigned determines the price at which the commodity
may be sold.
Animal breeders select and breed animals using their knowledge
of genetics and animal science to produce offspring with desired
traits and characteristics, such as chickens that lay more eggs,
pigs that produce leaner meat, and sheep with more desirable wool.
Animal breeders also raise and breed animals simply to sell their
offspring for money, including cats and dogs and other household
pets. The larger and more expensive animals that are bred, such
as horses and cattle, are usually bred through artificial insemination,
which requires the taking of semen from the male and then inseminating
the female with it. Using this process insures better results
and also enables one prized male to sire many more offspring than
through conventional mating. To know when and which animals to
breed, breeders keep detailed records, including the health of
the animal, its size and weight, and the amount and quality of
the product produced by the animal. They also keep track of the
traits of the offspring. Some breeders work as consultants for
a number of farmers, while others breed and raise their own animals
for eventual sale or breeding. For breeders that raise animals,
they may also have to care and clean animal shelters, feed and
water the animals, and oversee their day-to-day health or supervise
others that perform these jobs. Additionally, animal breeders
read journals and newsletters to remain current with the latest
information on animal breeding and veterinary advice.
Working conditions for agricultural workers vary widely. Much
of the work of farmworkers and laborers on farms and ranches takes
place outdoors in all kinds of weather and is physical in nature.
Harvesting fruits and vegetables, for example, may require much
bending, stooping, and lifting. Workers may lack adequate sanitation
facilities while working in the field, and their drinking water
may be limited. The year-round nature of much livestock production
work means that ranch workers must be out in the heat of summer,
as well as the cold of winter. While some of these workers enjoy
the day-to-day variability of the work, the rural setting, working
on the land, and raising animals, the work hours are generally
uneven and often long, and work cannot be delayed when crops must
be planted and harvested or when animals must be sheltered and
fed. Weekend work is common, and farmworkers may work a 6- or
7-day week during planting and harvesting seasons. Because much
of the work is seasonal in nature, many workers also obtain other
jobs during slow seasons. Migrant farmworkers, who move from location
to location as crops ripen, live an unsettled lifestyle, which
can be stressful.
Work also is seasonal for farmworkers in nurseries; spring and
summer are the busiest times of the year. Greenhouse workers enjoy
relatively comfortable working conditions while tending to plants
indoors. However, during the busy seasons, when landscape contractors
need plants, work schedules may be more demanding, requiring weekend
work. Moreover, the transition from warm weather to cold weather
means that nursery workers might have to work overtime with little
notice given in order to move plants indoors to protect them from
Federal meat inspectors may work in highly mechanized plants
or with poultry or livestock in confined areas with extremely
cold temperatures and slippery floors. The duties often require
working with sharp knives, moderate lifting, and walking or standing
for long periods. Many inspectors work long and often irregular
hours. Inspectors may find themselves in adversarial roles when
the organization or individual being inspected objects to the
inspection or its potential consequences. Some inspectors travel
frequently to visit farms and processing facilities. Others work
at ports, inspecting cargo on the docks or on boats.
Graders and sorters may work with similar products for an entire
shift, or they may be assigned a variety of items. They may be
on their feet all day and may have to lift heavy objects, whereas
others may sit during most of their shift and do little strenuous
work. Some graders work in clean, air-conditioned environments,
suitable for carrying out controlled tests. Some may work evenings
or weekends because of the perishable nature of the products.
Overtime may be required to meet production goals.
Animal breeders spend most of their time outdoors around animals,
but can also work in offices or in laboratories. If consulting,
breeders may have to travel from farm to farm. If they need to
sell the offspring, breeders may have to travel to attend shows
and to meet with potential buyers. While tending to the animals,
breeders may be bitten or kicked.
Farmworkers in crop production risk exposure to pesticides and
other hazardous chemicals sprayed on crops or plants. However,
exposure is relatively minimal if safety procedures are followed.
Those who work on mechanized farms must take precautions to avoid
injury when working with tools and heavy equipment. Those who
work directly with animals risk being bitten or kicked.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Farmworkers learn through short-term on-the-job training. Most
do not have a high school diploma. Workers without a high school
diploma are particularly common in the crop production sector,
where there are more labor-intensive establishments employing
In nurseries, entry-level workers must be able to follow directions
and learn proper planting procedures. If driving is an essential
part of a job, employers look for applicants with a good driving
record and some experience driving a truck. Workers who deal directly
with customers must get along well with people. Employers also
look for responsible, self-motivated individuals, because nursery
workers sometimes work with little supervision.
For graders and sorters, training requirements vary on the basis
of their responsibilities. For those who perform tests on various
agricultural products, a high school diploma is preferred and
may be required. Simple jobs requiring mostly visual inspection
may be filled by beginners provided with short-term on-the-job
Becoming an agricultural inspector requires relevant work experience
or some college course work in a field such as biology or agricultural
science. Inspectors are trained in the applicable laws or inspection
procedures through some combination of classroom and on-the-job
training. In general, people who want to enter this occupation
should be responsible, like detailed work, and be able to communicate
well. Federal Government inspectors whose job performance is satisfactory
advance through a career ladder to a specified full-performance
level. For positions above this level — usually supervisory positions
— advancement is competitive and based on agency needs and individual
merit. Advancement opportunities in State and local governments
and in the private sector often are similar to those in the Federal
The education and training requirements for animal breeders vary
with the type of breeding they do. For those whose primary activity
is breeding, particularly livestock and other large or expensive
animals, rather than raising animals, a bachelor’s degree or higher
in the animal sciences is recommended with courses in genetics,
animal breeding, and animal physiology. For those with experience
raising animals or those who are breeding their own animals, an
associate’s degree or other postsecondary training in animal breeding
is recommended. Experience working around animals, especially
on a farm, is helpful, even for those getting a degree.
Advancement of agricultural workers depends on motivation and
experience. Farmworkers who work hard and quickly, have good communication
skills, and take an interest in the business may advance to crew
leader or other supervisory positions. Some agricultural workers
may aspire to become farm, ranch, and other agricultural managers,
or farmers or ranchers themselves. (Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural
managers are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.) In addition,
their knowledge of raising and harvesting produce may provide
an excellent background for becoming purchasing agents and buyers
of farm products. Knowledge of working a farm as a business can
help agricultural workers become farm and home management advisors.
Those who earn a college degree in agricultural science could
become agricultural and food scientists.
Agricultural workers held about 834,000 jobs in 2004. Of these,
farmworkers were the most numerous, holding about 690,000 jobs.
Graders and sorters held about 45,000 jobs, agricultural inspectors
14,000 jobs, agricultural equipment operators 60,000 jobs, and
animal breeders 12,000 jobs. More than 66 percent of all agricultural
workers worked for crop and livestock producers, while more than
5 percent worked for agricultural service providers, mostly farm
Overall employment of agricultural workers is projected to decline
slightly over the 2004–14 period, primarily reflecting the outlook
for farmworkers in crops, nurseries, and greenhouses, who make
up the large majority of all agricultural workers. Low wages,
the physical demands of the work, and the large numbers of workers
who leave these jobs for other occupation should result in abundant
job opportunities, however.
Continued consolidation of farms and technological advancements
in farm equipment that make farmworkers both more efficient and
less needed will cause fewer of them to be hired. Farmworkers
will increasingly work for farm labor contractors rather than
being hired directly by the farm. The agriculture industry also
is expected to undergo increased competition from foreign countries
and rising imports, particularly from Central America, owing to
the passing of a free trade agreement with that region. Nursery
and greenhouse workers should experience some growth in this period,
reflecting the increasing demand for landscaping services.
Slower-than-average employment growth is anticipated for agricultural
inspectors. Governments at all levels are not expected to hire
significant numbers of new inspectors, choosing to leave more
of the routine inspection to businesses. Slower-than-average growth
also is expected for graders and sorters, while employment of
agricultural equipment operators is expected to decline slightly,
reflecting the agriculture industry’s continuing ability to produce
more with fewer workers. Animal breeders also will grow more slowly
than the average, as large commercial farmers continue to attempt
to breed the perfect animal. However, because the occupation is
so small there will be few job openings.
Median hourly earnings in May 2004 for each of the occupations
found in this statement are as follows:
Agricultural workers, all other
Agricultural equipment operators
Farmworkers, farm and ranch animals
Graders and sorters, agricultural products
Farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery,
Few agricultural workers are members of unions
The duties of farmworkers who perform outdoor labor are related
to the work of fishers and operators of fishing vessels; forest,
conservation, and logging workers; and grounds maintenance workers.
Farmworkers who work with farm and ranch animals perform work
related to that of animal care and service workers. Animal breeders
may perform some duties related to those of veterinary technologists
Sources of Additional Information
Information on agricultural worker jobs is available from:
National FFA Organization, The National FFA Center, Attention:
Career Information Requests, P.O. Box 68690, Indianapolis, IN,
46268-0960. Internet: http://www.ffa.org/
Information on farmworker jobs is available from:
Growing New Farmers Consortium, c/o New England Small Farm
Institute, P.O. Box 11, Belchertown, MA 01007.
Information on obtaining positions as an agricultural inspector
with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel
Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government’s official
employment information system. This resource for locating and
applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet
at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive
voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978)
461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition