Farmer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a farmer? Get real job descriptions, career outlook 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 often work directly with the cultivation of crops or raising of livestock, as well as managing business and financial operations. Becoming a farmer can be a solid career choice, but you need to understand what to expect in order to make an informed decision.

Pros of Becoming a Farmer
On-the-job training usually sufficient*
Many crop options (food, tobacco, cotton, livestock, trees)*
Can be your own boss*
Variety in daily tasks*

Cons of Becoming a Farmer
Declining employment (-2% drop from 2014-2024)*
Unpredictable income (affected by weather and market conditions)*
Working with farming machinery and tools can be dangerous*
High expenses (land, seeds, fuel, equipment)*
Long hours (half work more than 60 hours a week)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Future Farmers of America.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

The job of a farmer is to grow a product, such as food, livestock, trees or nursery plants. Job duties vary depending on the type of farm. In an agricultural operation, the farmer must know what types of crops grow best in the conditions and understand when to plant, fertilize and harvest. A farmer who produces livestock or poultry must supervise the care of the animals, preventing disease and encouraging maximum growth.

Most farmers own or lease land and run family farms. Some farm on government land or on farms owned by large corporations. On a family farm, the farmer usually oversees the entire operation, while on a large corporate or government farm, the farmer may be in charge of one aspect of the operation.

The farmer must cope with variables such as fluctuating market prices and unpredictable weather conditions. In growing season, farmers may work all day outdoors, while in winter, they make business plans and repair machinery. In a livestock operation, they work with the animals year-round. Farming can be dangerous, with risk of injury from improper handling of farm machinery and chemicals.

Career Prospects

The number of jobs for self-employed farmers was expected to drop by 2% from 2014-2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Advances in the agriculture industry have increased production but require fewer workers. Many struggling small farms have gone out of business as expenses increased over the past few years. Other small farmers survive by developing niches, such as organic farming, or selling in suburban and urban farmers' markets.

Getting started in farming can be expensive, and several organizations are available to help new farmers. The International Farm Transition Network operates Farm Link programs in 20 states, matching new farmers with retirees who want to sell their land. The Center for Rural Affairs coordinates several programs for new farmers, including the Veteran Farmers Project, which helps returning military personnel get started in farming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finances many programs from small farms through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Salary Information

It's tough to talk about a salary for farmers, because there are so many variables. While a farmer may make a profit one year, the money can be wiped out when the next year brings drought, flood or a huge jump in the cost of feed and fuel. PayScale.com reported a median salary of about $33,000 as of January 2016, with the low end at approximately $19,000 and the high end earning about $75,000. According to the USDA, many farm families rely on off-farm sources of income. The BLS reported a median income for farm, ranch and agricultural managers of approximately $43,000 in 2014.

What Are the Requirements?

Many farmers grow up on the farm and get most of their training through day-to-day chores; however, a 2-year associate's degree or a 4-year bachelor's degree from a university's school of agriculture is becoming more important. You can major in agribusiness, which will teach you to manage the business of farming, or in an area of farming you wish to pursue, such as agronomy or livestock systems. Many new agriculture graduates apply the skills they learned in college by working with experienced farmers. Some farms have apprenticeship programs for prospective farmers, offering training as well as room and board in exchange for labor.

Useful Skills

Farming is a business, and you'll need good math skills as well as knowledge of bookkeeping and accounting principles. Computer literacy is useful for record keeping. As a supervisor of other workers, you will also need good people skills and familiarity with safety regulations. Farmers must have mechanical aptitude to keep equipment in running condition. They should know how to use tools to repair structures around the farm.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Since most farmers are self-employed, there are few job postings. The ones that exist show the diversity of farming and the varying requirements. Experience, physical fitness and a willingness to work hard are the most common requirements mentioned in these ads. Here's a sampling of job postings from real employers in March 2012:

  • A federal park service agency was looking for an experienced person to farm in an Oregon park for six months of the year. This farmer would be responsible for producing feed crops, such as hay and alfalfa. Operating and repairing equipment, applying fertilizer and herbicides and irrigating the fields would be part of the job.
  • An organic farm in Wisconsin needed someone with at least two years experience in vegetable farming to assist with many duties. Computer skills were mandatory, and fluency in Spanish would be helpful.
  • In New York, a farm needed someone to help with heirloom vegetables, flowers, wild mushrooms and bees. The employer would provide a house.
  • A livestock farmer in New York was looking for a farmer who could work with cattle, lambs, chickens, hogs and rabbits. The duties included cleaning barns, baling hay and taking animals to pasture.

How to Stand Out

Farmers can succeed by continually developing their knowledge and taking advantage of opportunities to grow in the profession. Farming organizations, such as the Center for Rural Affairs, have information on various programs and continuing education courses.

In addition to adopting organic practices and selling at local markets, many farmers are boosting their profiles and incomes by getting into the hospitality industry and opening their farms to paying guests. Other small farmers are pooling their resources and forming cooperatives to market and sell their products.

Other Career Paths

Agricultural Manager

If you love the work of growing things, but don't have the capital or the desire to own your own farm, you might want to become an agricultural or ranch manager. Managers supervise the activities of one or more small farms or ranches, usually working for a farmer, landowner or a corporation. The BLS predicted that jobs for agricultural managers would be greater than for farmers. Salary.com said the median annual salary of these managers was about $39,000 as of April 2012. While a degree from a school of agriculture would be helpful, there are no formal education requirements for this career.

Agricultural Engineer

If you want a good, steady income in the field of agriculture, you might look at becoming an agriculture engineer. You'll need a bachelor's degree in biological engineering or agricultural engineering. You can choose from a variety of specialties, from farming to forestry. You'll mostly work in an office, but engineers get outside to visit work sites, too. The BLS said this profession's median salary was about $75,000 as of 2011 and predicted a nine percent job growth from 2010-2020, slower than average for all occupations.

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