Farm Operators and Managers Career Information
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Significant Points· Modern farming requires college training in agriculture and work experience
acquired through growing up on a farm or through a small number of internships
· Overall employment is projected to decline because of increasing productivity and consolidation of farms.
· Aquaculture should provide some new employment opportunities; in addition, developments in value-added marketing and organic farming are making small-scale farming economically viable again.
· Self-employed farmers' and ranchers' incomes vary greatly from year to year.
Nature of the WorkAmerican 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 produce a surplus for export.
Farmers and ranchers may be owners or tenants who rent the use of land. The type of farm they operate determines their specific tasks. On crop farms—farms growing grain, cotton, and other fibers, fruit, and vegetables—farmers are responsible for planning, tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting. After the harvest, they make sure the crops are properly packaged, stored, or marketed. Livestock, dairy, and poultry farmers must feed, plan, and care for the animals and keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean and in good condition. They also oversee breeding and marketing activities. Horticultural specialty farmers oversee the production of ornamental plants, nursery products—such as flowers, bulbs, shrubbery, and sod—and fruits and vegetables grown in greenhouses. 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.
Farmers and ranchers make many managerial decisions. Their farm output is strongly influenced by the weather, disease, fluctuations in prices of domestic and foreign farm products, and Federal farm programs. In a crop operation, farmers usually determine the best time to plant seed, apply fertilizer and chemicals, harvest, and market. They use different strategies to protect themselves from unpredictable changes in the markets for agricultural products. Many farmers carefully plan the combination of crops they grow so that if the price of one crop drops, they will have sufficient income from another to make up for the loss. Others, particularly operators of smaller farms, may choose to sell their goods directly through farmers' markets, or use cooperatives to reduce their financial risk and to gain a larger share of consumers' expenditures on food. For example, in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), cooperatives sell to consumers shares of a harvest prior to the planting season, thus freeing the farmer from having to bear all the financial risks and ensuring the farmer a market for the produce of the coming season.
Farmers and ranchers who plan ahead may be able to store their crops or keep their livestock to take advantage of better prices later in the year. Those who participate in the risky futures market—in which contracts and options on futures contracts on commodities are traded through stockbrokers—try to anticipate or track changes in the supply of and demand for agricultural commodities, and thus changes in the prices of farm products. By buying or selling futures contracts, or by pricing their products in advance of future sales, they attempt to either limit their risk or reap greater profits than would normally be realized. They may have to secure loans from credit agencies to finance the purchase of machinery, fertilizer, livestock, and feed. 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.
Responsibilities of farmers and ranchers range from caring for livestock, to operating machinery, to maintaining equipment and facilities. The size of the farm or ranch often determines which of these tasks farmers and ranchers will handle themselves. Operators of small farms usually perform all tasks, physical and administrative. They keep records for tax purposes, service machinery, maintain buildings, and grow vegetables and raise animals. Operators of large farms, on the other hand, have employees who help with the physical work that small-farm operators do themselves. 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 guide and assist farmers and ranchers in maximizing the financial returns to their land by managing the day-to-day activities. Their duties and responsibilities vary widely. For example, the owner of a very large livestock farm may employ a manager to oversee a single activity, such as feeding the livestock. On the other hand, when managing a small crop farm for an absentee owner, a manager may assume responsibility for all functions, from selecting the crops to participating in planting and harvesting. Farm management firms and corporations involved in agriculture employ highly trained professional farm managers who may manage farm operations or oversee tenant operators of several farms. In these cases, 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.
There are several types of agricultural managers. Nursery and greenhouse managers make decisions about the type and quality of horticultural plants—trees, shrubs, flowers, or mushrooms, for example—to be grown. They also select and purchase seed, fertilizers, and chemicals used for disease control. Crop farm managers and fish hatchery managers direct farmworkers involved in crop and fish hatchery production.
Working ConditionsThe work of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural
managers is often strenuous; work hours are frequently long; and they rarely
have days off during the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons. Nevertheless,
for those who enter farming or ranching, these disadvantages are outweighed
by the quality of life in a rural area, working outdoors, being self-employed,
and making a living working the land. Farmers
and farm managers on crop farms usually work from sunrise to sunset during the
planting and harvesting seasons. During the rest of the year they plan next
season's crops, market their output, and repair machinery; some may earn additional
income by working a second job off the farm.
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 rarely get the chance to get away unless they hire an assistant or arrange for a temporary substitute.
Farmers who grow produce and perishables have different demands on their time. For example, organic farmers must maintain cover crops during the cold months, which keeps them occupied with farming beyond the typical growing season.
Farm work also 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 is necessary to avoid accidents and protect the environment.
On very large farms, farmers spend substantial time meeting with farm managers or 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 at computers, where they electronically manage many aspects of their businesses. Some farmers also spend time at conferences, particularly during the winter months, exchanging information.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers held nearly 1.3 million jobs in 2009. About 83 percent were self-employed. Most farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers oversee crop production activities, while others manage livestock and dairy production. Most farmers and ranchers operate small farms on a part-time basis.
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 Kansas are the leading agricultural States.
Training, Qualifications, Adv.Growing up on a family farm and participating
in agricultural programs for young people (sponsored by the National FFA Organization,
formerly known as the Future Farmers of America, or the 4-H youth educational
programs) are important sources of training for those interested in pursuing
agriculture as a career. However, modern farming requires increasingly complex
scientific, business, and financial decisions. Therefore, even people who were
raised on farms must acquire the appropriate education.
Not all agricultural managers grew up on farms or ranches. For these people, a bachelor's degree in business with a concentration in agriculture is important. In addition to formal education, they need several years of work experience in the different aspects of farm and ranch operations in order to qualify for an agricultural manager position.
Students should select the college most appropriate to their specific interests and location. In the United States, all State university systems have one land-grant university with 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, formal programs are available, and include coursework in fisheries biology, fish culture, hatchery management and maintenance, and hydrology. Whatever one's interest, the college curriculum should include courses in agricultural production, marketing, and economics.
Professional status can be enhanced through voluntary certification as an Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Certification 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 the passing of courses and examinations relating to business, financial, and legal aspects of farm and ranch management.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need to keep abreast of continuing advances in agricultural methods both in the United States and abroad, as well as changes in governmental regulations that may impact methods or markets for particular crops. Besides print journals that inform the agricultural community, the spread of the Internet allows quick access to the latest developments in areas such as agricultural marketing, legal arrangements, or growing crops, vegetables, and livestock. Electronic mail, on-line journals, and newsletters from agricultural organizations also speed the exchange of information directly between farming associations and individual farmers.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers also must have enough technical knowledge of crops, growing conditions, and plant diseases to make decisions ensuring the successful operation of their farms. A rudimentary knowledge of veterinary science, as well as animal husbandry, is important for livestock and dairy farmers. Knowledge of the relationship between farm operations—for example, the use of pesticides—and environmental conditions is essential. Mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with tools of all kinds are also valuable skills for the operator of a small farm, who often maintains and repairs machinery or farm structures.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need the managerial skills necessary to organize and operate a business. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping is essential in keeping financial records, while a knowledge of credit sources is vital for buying seed, fertilizer, and other inputs necessary for planting. It is also necessary to be familiar with complex safety regulations and requirements of governmental agricultural support programs. Computer skills are increasingly important, especially on large farms, where computers are widely used for recordkeeping and business analysis. For example, some farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers use personal computers to access the Internet to get the latest information on prices of farm products and other agricultural news.
High school training should include courses in mathematics and in biology and other life sciences. Completion of a 2-year degree, and preferably a 4-year bachelor's degree program in a college of agriculture, is becoming increasingly important. But even after obtaining formal education, novices may need to spend time working under an experienced farmer to learn how to put into practice the skills learned through academic training. A small number of farms offer, on a formal basis, apprenticeships to help young people acquire such practical skills.
Job OutlookDemand for food and fiber will increase due to growth in world population and in demand for U.S. agricultural exports as developing nations improve their economies and personal incomes. However, increasing productivity in the U.S. agricultural production industry is expected to meet domestic consumption needs and export requirements with fewer workers. Employment of farmers and ranchers, is expected to continue to through 2010, while employment for farm, ranch, and agricultural managers is expected to grow slower than average. The overwhelming majority of job openings for self-employed farmers and ranchers will result from the need to replace farmers who retire or leave the occupation for economic or other reasons.
Market pressures will continue the long-term trend toward consolidation into fewer and larger farms over the 2005-15 period, further reducing the number of jobs for farmers and ranchers, but increasing employment of agricultural managers. Some farmers acquire farms by inheritance; however, purchasing a farm or additional land is expensive and requires substantial capital. In addition, sufficient funds are required to withstand the adverse effects of climate and price fluctuations upon farm output and income and to cover operating costs—livestock, feed, seed, and fuel. Also, the complexity of modern farming and keen competition among farmers leaves little room for the marginally successful farmer.
Despite the expected continued consolidation of farm land and the projected decline in overall employment of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers, 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 organic food production, as more consumers demand food grown without pesticides or chemicals. 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, such as some dairy 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 directly buy a share of the farmer's harvest.
Aquaculture also should continue to provide some new employment opportunities over the 2005-10 period. Overfishing has resulted in declining ocean catches, and the growing demand for certain seafood items—such as shrimp, salmon, and catfish—has spurred the growth of aquaculture farms. Aquaculture output increased strongly between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, and continued growth is expected.
Incomes of farmers and ranchers vary greatly from year to year because prices of farm products fluctuate with weather conditions and other factors influencing the quantity and quality of farm output and the demand for those products. A farm that shows a large profit one year may show a loss the following year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average net cash farm business income for farm operator households in 2009 was $15,603. This figure, however, does not reflect that farmers often receive government subsidies or other payments that supplement their incomes and reduce some of the risk of farming. Additionally, most farmers—primarily operators of small farms—have income from off-farm business activities or careers, often greater than that of their farm income.
Full-time, salaried farm managers had median weekly earnings of $621 in 2009. The middle half earned between $464 and $890. The highest paid 10 percent earned more than $1,264, and the lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $350.
Farmers and self-employed farm managers make their own provisions for benefits. As members of farm organizations, they may derive benefits such as group discounts on health and life insurance premiums.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers strive to improve the quality of agricultural products and the efficiency of farms. Others whose work is related to agricultural products include agricultural engineers , agricultural and food scientists , agricultural workers , and purchasing agents and buyers of farm products.
For general information about farming and agricultural occupations, contact either of the following organizations: For information about certification as an accredited farm manager, contact: For information on the USDA’s program to help small farmers get started, contact: For information on aquaculture, diversified agriculture, education, training, or community-supported agriculture, contact either of the following organizations:
Sources of Additional Information
For general information about farming and agricultural occupations, contact either of the following organizations:
For information about certification as an accredited farm manager, contact:
For information on the USDA’s program to help small farmers get started, contact:
For information on aquaculture, diversified agriculture, education, training, or community-supported agriculture, contact either of the following organizations: