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What is being a farmer like?

The U. S. farm sector grows enough to meet needs here, with enough left over to sell to other countries. American farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers direct farm activities.

Farmers and ranchers usually run family-owned farms. These might be crop farms; livestock, dairy, and poultry farms; horticultural farms; or even aquaculture farms.

Crop farms grow grains, fiber crops, fruits, and vegetables. Preparing, tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting are the work of the crop farmers. Then they make sure the crops are properly packaged, stored, or marketed.

Livestock, dairy, and poultry farmers must feed, and care for animals. They keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean and in good condition. They also oversee breeding and marketing activities.

Horticultural specialty farms grow ornamental plants and nursery products. Their output includes flowers, bulbs, shrubbery, and sod. They also grow fruits and vegetables in greenhouses.

Aquaculture farmers raise fish and shellfish. They take care of ponds and floating net pens. They stock, feed, protect, and care for aquatic life. Their products are sold for people to eat or to use as bait.

Farmers and ranchers have many different duties. Farmers on small farms have to do many kinds of work. They keep records, operate and service machinery, maintain buildings, and grow vegetables or raise animals. Most farms employ just the farmer and one or two family workers or hired hands.

Large farms can have 100 or more full-time and seasonal workers. Some of these employees work as truck drivers, salespeople, bookkeepers, and computer specialists.

Farmers make many decisions. They decide when to plant, fertilize, harvest, and market. They also negotiate with banks and other lenders. Most farm output is sold to food processing companies. Some farmers, mostly on small farms, sell their goods at farmers' markets. They may also sell through co-ops.

Like other businesses, farming has become more complex. Farmers use computers to keep records and to manage many aspects of their businesses.

A farmer's work can be very hard. Hours are long, often sunrise to sunset. During planting and harvesting seasons they rarely have days off. The rest of the year they plan for the next year, market their crops, and repair machinery. But many prefer rural life. They enjoy working outdoors, being self-employed, and making a living off the land.

On livestock farms and ranches, work goes on throughout the year. Animals, unless they are grazing, must be fed and watered every day. Dairy cows must be milked every day. Livestock farmers must attend to the health of their herds. To get away, these farmers must hire an assistant or a temporary substitute.

Farm work also can be hazardous. Farm machinery can cause serious injury. Workers must be alert on the job.

How do you get ready to be a farmer?

Growing up on a family farm is good experience. Agricultural programs for young people are another important source of training. (Programs such as those sponsored by the National FFA Organization, 4-H youth educational programs, or others offered by the Extension Service.) But modern farming requires complex scientific, business, and financial decisions. So, even people who were raised on farms need more education.

High school training should include courses in math, biology, and other life sciences. College degrees are becoming more and more important. Even after getting a formal education, novices may need to spend time working with an experienced farmer. Some farms have apprentice programs.

Every State university system has a school of agriculture. Common programs of study include agronomy, dairy science, agricultural economics and business, horticulture, crop and fruit science, and animal science. For students interested in aquaculture, coursework in fisheries biology, fish culture, hatchery management and maintenance, and hydrology are available. Courses in agricultural production, marketing, and economics are a good idea for all majors.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers must know enough about crops, growing conditions, and plant diseases to make good decisions. A basic knowledge of veterinary science and animal husbandry is important for livestock and dairy farmers. The ability to work with tools of all kinds is a valuable skill for the operator of a small farm.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers are businesspeople. They need the managerial skills necessary to run a business. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping is essential. Computer skills are important. Skills in personnel management and conflict resolution are also valuable.

How much does a farmer make?

Incomes of farmers and ranchers vary from year to year. A farm may show a profit one year and a loss the next. Farmers often get government payments to supplement their incomes and reduce the risk of farming. Many farmers have income from off-farm careers.

The middle 50 percent of full-time, salaried farm managers earned between $32,620 and $59,330 in 2002. The highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $81,100. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $24,410.

How many jobs are there?

There were about 1.4 million farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers in 2002. About 84 percent were self-employed. Most farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers oversee crop growing. Others manage livestock and dairy production. A smaller number are involved in agricultural services.

Local conditions determine what farming and ranching can be done where. If you want to produce milk, you'll be most likely to find a job in California, Wisconsin, New York, or Pennsylvania. Eggs? Head to Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or California. Cotton? Try Texas, California, Mississippi, Georgia, or Arizona. Wheat? Kansas, North Dakota, Washington, or Montana.

What about the future?

Low prices for agricultural goods will cause some farms to go out of business over the 2002-2012 period. The trend of small farms being consolidated into larger farms will continue.

The continued decline in employment of self-employed farmers and ranchers will continue as well. There will be slower than average growth in employment of salaried agricultural managers.

The agriculture sector continues to produce more with fewer workers. Increasing productivity means that domestic consumption and export demands can be met with fewer employees. Most job openings for self-employed farmers and ranchers will result from the need to replace farmers who retire or otherwise leave the occupation.

Despite all this, an increasing number of small-scale farmers have found successful market niches. Some of these are based on personal, direct contact with customers. Many are finding opportunities in organic foods. Others use farmers' markets that sell directly to urban and suburban consumers. Some small-scale dairy farmers belong to marketing co-ops that process and sell their product. Other farmers sell shares of their harvest directly to consumers.

Aquaculture should provide some new jobs over the 2002-12 period. Ocean catches are declining. The demand for fish is growing. This has spurred the growth of aquaculture farms. These farms raise selected species-such as shrimp, salmon, trout and catfish-in pens or ponds.

Also, growing consumer demand for horticulture products, such as flowers and ornamentals, trees, shrubs, and other non-edibles, is expected to produce jobs for greenhouse and nursery farmers and managers.

Are there other jobs like this?

  • Agricultural engineers
  • Agricultural and food scientists
  • Agricultural workers
  • Fishers and fishing vessel operators
  • Forest, conservation, and logging workers
  • Grounds maintenance workers
  • Landscape architects
  • Purchasing agents and buyers of farm products
Where can you find more information?

More information about farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers can be found in the Careeers Database.

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics

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