Becoming a Farmer: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a farmer? Get the job description, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a farmer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Farmer

Farmers continue a venerable tradition of working the land, caring for livestock, and providing our food, but they remain subject to weather conditions and cycles. Continue reading to learn about the pros and cons associated with becoming a farmer.

Pros of Being a Farmer
Higher median annual salary than all occupations ($68, 050)*
High school diploma acceptable education*
Often receive assistance from government programs (subsidies and training)*
Farmers are commonly self-employed (approximately 80%)*

Cons of Being a Farmer
Job growth in decline (-19% between 2012 and 2022)*
Farm output and crop health may be compromised by bad weather conditions*
Farm production will be influenced by market demand*
Bachelor's degree becoming more important*
Farm work may be physically strenuous*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Farmers produce crops, livestock and dairy products. The job duties of a farmer will vary in accordance with the type and size of the farm they work on or own. For example, dairy farmers must care for their animals and provide them with shelter, while those who produce agricultural products often supervise all phases of crop production, including sowing, harvesting and fertilizing. These farmers also must plan the combinations of the crops they grow in accordance with market demand and often engage in the various business processes involved in selling crops.

Many farmers own and operate family farms, while others may rent land from a landowner. On smaller farms, farmers must be more self-sufficient, operating and repairing their own farm equipment and maintaining farm facilities, such as fences and water pipes. Farmers who operate larger farms may hire employees to help with labor. These larger farms may employ workers in non-farm occupations, such as truck drivers, bookkeepers, IT specialists and sales representatives.

Salary Information and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in May 2013, most farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers earned an annual wage between $34,170 and $121,690.The income of a farmer varies from year to year due to fluctuations in market demand, weather conditions and other factors. Many farmers get government subsidies or other types of payments that augment their income. Farmers who operate small farms may partially rely on external sources of income.

Farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers were expected to see a 19% decline from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. This was predicted due to the rising cost of seed, equipment, chemicals and land, among other factors. According to the Center for Rural Affairs, new farmers represent only 10% of all farmers and ranchers, and since 1987, the number of new farmers has dropped 30%. Small-scale farmers have found success in certain markets by having one-on-one contact with buyers, and others participate in marketing and community-owned cooperatives to sell products.

Education and Training Requirements

Many farmers learn their trade through being raised on a family farm or by working with experienced farmers. However, even those who grew up on a farm or have experience can benefit from a formal training program. Agricultural programs are available at the associate's and bachelor's degree level, and in addition to learning about harvesting food, students will also learn about the business aspects of farming.

If you're new to farming and want to start a farm, you can also attend various agricultural meetings and classes through farming organizations. You can also find several newsletters, books and journals about starting a farm. Some farms may offer formal apprenticeship programs to help aspiring farmers learn the practical skills involved in farming. Many government programs also provide financial assistance to farmers, so you may want to do your due diligence to find a program that will help you with financing.

Useful Skills

Many small or family-owned farms are both owned and operated by individual farmers; in this sense, many farmers are self-employed. Individuals who do not possess their own farms may gain valuable skills through working for established farms. Farmers across the nation hire workers to help with harvests, hauling materials, caring for animals and other tasks involved in the daily operations of farms. In general, farmers must have the following skills and talents:

  • A comprehensive understanding of the farming practices involved in the type of farm that is being operated
  • A sound understanding of the business practices involved in selling crops and other farm products
  • An awareness of market behavior and demand for specific types of farm products
  • The ability to adjust their schedules in accordance with seasonal cycles and weather changes

How to Stand Out in the Field

Earn a Degree

Because of the complexities involved in the modern farming industry, farmers may benefit from attending college programs that are relevant to the farming industry, per the BLS. Some universities may allow you to study business with a concentration in farm management, agriculture, agronomy, agricultural economics or dairy science. Farmers who work primarily with crops may benefit from studying agriculture where they can learn about a variety of crops, plant diseases and growing conditions. State university systems have land-grant colleges or universities with schools of agriculture. In these programs, students can learn about agricultural business, farm management, dairy science, agricultural economics and agronomy. Dairy farmers can benefit from learning about veterinary science and how pesticides can harm livestock.

Get Certified

Farmers may also stand out and show their competency by earning voluntary certification. By becoming a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA), you can earn the Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) credential. In order to qualify for this credential, you must complete and pass management courses offered by the ASFMRA, have a 4-year college degree and four years of farm or ranch management experience.

Alternative Career Paths

Agricultural Technician

If you enjoy being involved in the agricultural industry, but you don't want to own or operate a farm, you may wish to become an agricultural technician. Agricultural technicians follow protocols to analyze and prepare crop samples, examine animals in order to determine the presence of diseases, analyze and compile test results that contribute to charts and conduct laboratory tests. They typically must have an associate's degree in animal science and a strong background in biological sciences. The BLS reported in May 2011 the median annual wage of an agricultural technician was over $33,000. From 2010-2020, job growth was anticipated to grow by 7%, slower than average among all occupations, but higher than the job growth for farmers.

Agricultural Scientist

Agricultural scientists work to ensure that agricultural products are safe. They conduct experiments and research involving field crops and animal nutrition, develop ways to improve the quality of farm animals and crops and create new ways to process and package agricultural products. To become an agricultural scientist, you will need at least a bachelor's degree that includes coursework in biology, chemistry and botany. Many agricultural scientists hold graduate degrees. According to the BLS, in 2011, the median annual pay for a food scientist was around $58,000. Between 2010 and 2020, employment was expected to grow by 10%, about as fast as average among all occupations.

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