Farmers either own or lease land on which they raise crops, such as corn, wheat, tobacco, cotton, vegetables, or fruits; raise animals or poultry; or maintain herds of dairy cattle for the production of milk. Whereas some farmers may combine several of these activities, most specialize in one specific area. They are assisted by farm laborers - either hired workers or members of farm families - who perform various tasks.
As increasingly complex technology continues to impact the agricultural industry, farms are becoming larger. Most contemporary farms are thousands of acres in size and include massive animal and plant production operations. Subsistence farms, which produce only enough to support the farmer’s family, are becoming increasingly rare. There are approximately 1.3 million farmers employed in the United States.
In colonial America, almost 95 percent of the population were farmers, planting such crops as corn, wheat, flax, and, further south, tobacco. Livestock including hogs, cattle, sheep, and goats were imported from Europe. Farmers raised hay to feed livestock and often just enough other crops to supply their families with a balanced diet throughout the year. Progress in science and technology in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed for societies to develop in different directions, and to build other industries, but over one-half of the world’s population is still engaged in farming today.
In the early 20th century, farmers raised a variety of crops along with cattle, poultry, and dairy cows. Farm labor was handled by the farmers and their families. Farmers were very self-sufficient, living on their farms and maintaining their own equipment and storage. Between 1910 and 1960, when horsepower was replaced by mechanized equipment, about 90 million acres previously devoted to growing hay for the feeding of horses could be planted with other crops. Advances in farming techniques and production led to larger farms and more specialization by farmers. Farmers began to focus on growing one or two crops. About this time, more tenant farmers entered the business, renting land for cash or share of the crops.
This farmer is harvesting corn. (Bruce Fritz/U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.)
Farmers doubled their output between 1950 and 1980, but there were fewer of them. In that time, the farm population decreased from 23 million to 6 million. After 1980, many farmers began supplementing their household income with off-farm jobs and businesses.
Today, some small-scale farmers are finding success by catering to niche markets such as organic foods and specialty crops. Others are even branching off into aquaculture - the commercial farming of fish.
There are probably as many different types of farmers as there are different types of plants and animals whose products are consumed by humans. In addition to diversified crops farmers, who grow different combinations of fruits, grains, and vegetables, and general farmers, who raise livestock as well as crops, there are cash grain farmers, who grow barley, corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat; vegetable farmers; tree-fruit-and-nut crops farmers; field crops farmers, who raise alfalfa, cotton, hops, peanuts, mint, sugarcane, and tobacco; animal breeders; fur farmers; livestock ranchers; dairy farmers; poultry farmers; beekeepers; reptile farmers; fish farmers; and even worm growers.
In addition to the different types of crop farmers, there are two different types of farming management careers: the farm operator and the farm manager.
The farm operator either owns his or her own farm or leases land from other farms. Farm operators’ responsibilities vary depending on the type of farm they run, but in general they are responsible for making managerial decisions. They determine the best time to seed, fertilize, cultivate, spray, and harvest. They keep extensive financial and inventory records of the farm operations, which are now done with the help of computer programs.
Farm operators perform tasks ranging from caring for livestock to erecting sheds. The size of the farm often determines what tasks the operators handle themselves. On very large farms, operators hire employees to perform tasks that operators on small farms would do themselves.
The farm manager has a wide range of duties. The owner of a large livestock farm may hire a farm manager to oversee a single activity, such as feeding the livestock. In other cases, a farm manager may oversee the entire operation of a small farm for an absentee owner. Farm management firms often employ highly skilled farm managers to manage specific operations on a small farm or to oversee tenant farm operations on several farms.
Whether farm operators or managers, the farmers’ duties vary widely depending on what product they farm. A common type of farmer is the crop farmer. Following are a number of crops that a crop farmer might manage.
Corn farmers and wheat farmers begin the growing season by breaking up the soil with plows, then harrowing, pulverizing, and leveling it. Some of these tasks may be done after the harvest the previous year and others just before planting. Corn is usually planted around the middle of May with machines that place the corn seeds into dirt hills a few inches apart, making weed control easier. On the average, a crop is cultivated three times during a season. Corn is also used in the making of silage, a type of animal feed made by cutting the corn and allowing it to ferment in storage silos.
Wheat may be sown in the fall or spring, depending on the severity of the past winter and the variety of wheat being sown. Wheat is planted with a drill, close together, allowing greater cultivation and easier harvesting. The harvest for winter wheat occurs in early summer. Wheat farmers use machines called combines to gather and thresh the wheat in one operation. The wheat is then stored in large grain storage elevators, which are owned by private individuals, companies, or farming cooperatives.
Cotton and tobacco planting begins in March in the Southwest and somewhat later in the Southeast. Tobacco plants must be carefully protected from harsh weather conditions. The soil in which tobacco is grown must be thoroughly broken up, smoothed, and fertilized before planting, as tobacco is very hard on the soil.
The peanut crop can be managed like other types of farm crops. It is not especially sensitive to weather and disease, nor does it require the great care of tobacco and cotton.
Specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables are subject to seasonal variations, so the farmer usually relies heavily on hired seasonal labor. This type of farmer uses more specialized equipment than do general farmers.
The mechanization of farming has not eliminated all the problems of raising crops. Judgment and experience are always important in making decisions. The hay farmer, for example, must determine the time for mowing that will yield the best crop in terms of stem toughness and leaf loss. These decisions must be weighed against possible harsh weather conditions. To harvest hay, hay farmers use specialized equipment such as mowing machines and hay rakes that are usually drawn by tractors. The hay is pressed into bales by another machine for easier storage and then transported to storage facilities or to market.
Decisions about planting are just as crucial as those about harvesting. For example, potatoes need to be planted during a relatively short span of days in the spring. The fields must be tilled and ready for planting, and the farmer must estimate weather conditions so the seedlings will not freeze from late winter weather.
The specialty crop farmer uses elaborate irrigation systems to water crops during seasons of inadequate rainfall. Often these systems are portable, as it is necessary to move the equipment from field to field.
Farms are strongly influenced by the weather, diseases, fluctuations in prices of domestic and foreign farm products, and, in some cases, federal farm programs. Farmers must carefully plan the combination of crops they will grow so that if the price of one crop drops they will have sufficient income from another to make up for it. Since prices change from month to month, farmers who plan ahead may be able to store their crops or keep their livestock to take advantage of better prices later in the year.
Farmers who raise and breed animals for milk or meat are called livestock and cattle farmers. There are various types of farmers that fall into this category.
Livestock farmers generally buy calves from ranchers who breed and raise them. They feed and fatten young cattle and often raise their own corn and hay to lower feeding costs. They need to be familiar with cattle diseases and proper methods of feeding. They provide their cattle with fenced pasturage and adequate shelter from rough weather. Some livestock farmers specialize in breeding stock for sale to ranchers and dairy farmers. These specialists maintain and improve purebred animals of a particular breed. Bulls and cows are then sold to ranchers and dairy farmers who want to improve their herds.
Sheep ranchers raise sheep primarily for their wool. Large herds are maintained on rangeland in the western states. Since large areas of land are needed, the sheep rancher must usually buy grazing rights on government owned lands.
Although dairy farmers’ first concern is the production of high-grade milk, they also raise corn and grain to provide feed for their animals. Dairy farmers must be able to repair the many kinds of equipment essential to their business and know about diseases, sanitation, and methods of improving the quantity and quality of the milk.
Dairy animals must be milked twice every day, once in the morning and once at night. Records are kept of each cow’s production of milk to ascertain which cows are profitable and which should be traded or sold for meat. After milking, when the cows are at pasture, the farmer cleans the stalls and barn by washing, sweeping, and sterilizing milking equipment with boiling water. This is extremely important because dairy cows easily contract diseases from unsanitary conditions, and this in turn may contaminate the milk. Dairy farmers must have their herds certified to be free of disease by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The great majority of poultry farmers do not hatch their own chicks but buy them from commercial hatcheries. The chicks are kept in brooder houses until they are seven or eight weeks old and are then transferred to open pens or shelters. After six months, the hens begin to lay eggs, and roosters are culled from the flock to be sold for meat.
The primary duty of poultry farmers is to keep their flocks healthy. They provide shelter from the chickens’ natural enemies and from extreme weather conditions. The shelters are kept extremely clean, because diseases can spread through a flock rapidly. The poultry farmer selects the food that best allows each chicken to grow or produce to its greatest potential while at the same time keeping costs down.
Raising chickens to be sold as broilers or fryers requires equipment to house them until they are six to 13 weeks old. Farmers specializing in the production of eggs gather eggs at least twice a day and more often in very warm weather. The eggs then are stored in a cool place, inspected, graded, and packed for market. The poultry farmer who specializes in producing broilers is usually not an independent producer but is under contract with a backer, who is often the operator of a slaughterhouse or the manufacturer of poultry feeds.
Beekeepers set up and manage beehives and harvest and sell the excess honey that bees don’t use as their own food. The sale of honey is less profitable than the business of cultivating bees for lease to farmers to help pollinate their crops.
Farmers and farm managers make a wide range of administrative decisions. In addition to their knowledge of crop production and animal science, they determine how to market the foods they produce. They keep an eye on the commodities markets to see which crops are most profitable. They take out loans to buy farm equipment or additional land for cultivation. They keep up with new methods of production and new markets. Farms today are large, complex businesses, complete with the requisite anxiety over cash flow, competition, markets, and production.
Take classes in math, accounting, and business to prepare for the management responsibilities of running a farm. To further assist you in management, take computer classes. Chemistry, biology, and earth science classes can help you understand the various processes of crop production. Technical and shop courses will help you to better understand agricultural machinery. With county extension courses, you can keep abreast of developments in farm technology. Postsecondary T raining
Although there are no specific educational requirements for this field, every successful farmer, whether working with crops or animals, must know the principles of soil preparation and cultivation, disease control, and machinery maintenance, as well as a mastery of business practices and bookkeeping. Farmers must know their crops well enough to be able to choose the proper seeds for their particular soil and climate. They also need experience in evaluating crop growth and weather cycles. Livestock and dairy farmers should enjoy working with animals and have some background in animal science, breeding, and care.
The state land-grant universities across the country were established to encourage agricultural research and to educate young people in the latest advancements in farming. They offer agricultural programs that award bachelor’s degrees as well as shorter programs in specific areas. Some universities offer advanced studies in horticulture, animal science, agronomy, and agricultural economics. Most students in agricultural colleges are also required to take courses in farm management, business, finance, and economics. Two-year colleges often have programs leading to associate’s degrees in agriculture. Certification or Licensing The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers offers farm operators voluntary certification as an accredited farm manager (AFM). Certification requires several years experience working on a farm, an academic background - a bachelor’s or preferably a master’s degree in a branch of agricultural science - and courses covering the business, financial, and legal aspects of farm management. Other Requirements You’ll need to keep up to date on new farming methods throughout the world. You must be flexible and innovative enough to adapt to new technologies that will produce crops or raise livestock more efficiently. You should also have good mechanical aptitude and be able to work with a wide variety of tools and machinery.
Most people who become farmers have grown up on farms; if your family doesn’t own a farm, there are opportunities for part-time work as a hired hand, especially during seasonal operations. If you live in an agricultural community, you should be able to find work as a detasseler in the summer time. Although the work is hot and strenuous, it will quickly familiarize you with aspects of crop production and the hard work it takes to operate a farm.
In addition, organizations such as the National 4-H Council (http://www.fourhcouncil.edu) and the National FFA Organization (http://www.ffa.org) offer good opportunities for learning about, visiting, and participating in farming activities. Agricultural colleges often have their own farms where students can gain actual experience in farm operations in addition to classroom work.
Approximately 1.3 million farmers are employed in the United States. Eighty-three percent of farmers are self-employed, working on land they’ve inherited, purchased, or leased. Those who don’t own land, but who have farming experience, may find work on large commercial farms or with agricultural supply companies as consultants or managers. Farmers with seasonal crops may work for agriculture-related businesses during the off-season or may work temporarily as farm hands for livestock farms and ranches. They may also own other businesses, such as farm equipment sales and service.
|U.S. Farm Facts
Total Farmland: 938.28 million acres
Percent of Total Land Area: 41 percent
Number of Certified Organic Farms: 11,998
Average Farm Size: 441 acres
Average Age of Farm Operators: 55.3 years
Top Five Agricultural Commodities: Cattle and calves, dairy
products, corn, broilers, and soybeans
Source: 2002 Census of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture
It is becoming increasingly difficult for a person to purchase land for farming. The capital investment in a farm today is so great that it is almost impossible for anyone to start from scratch. However, those who lack a family connection to farming or who do not have enough money to start their own farm can lease land from other farmers. Money for leasing land and equipment may be available from local banks or the Farm Service Agency.
Because the capital outlay is so high, many wheat, corn, and specialty crop farmers often start as tenant farmers, renting land and equipment. They may also share the cash profits with the owner of the land. In this way, these tenants hope to gain both the experience and cash to purchase and manage their own farms.
Livestock farmers generally start by renting property and sometimes animals on a share-of-the-profits basis with the owner. Government lands, such as national parks, can be rented for pasture as well. Later, when the livestock farmer wants to own property, it is possible to borrow based on the estimated value of the leased land, buildings, and animals. Dairy farmers can begin in much the same way. However, loans are becoming more difficult to obtain. After several years of lenient loan policies, financial institutions in farm regions have tightened their requirements.
Farmers advance by buying their own farms or additional acreage to increase production and income. With a farm’s success, a farmer can also invest in better equipment and technology and can hire managers and workers to attend to much of the farm’s operation. This is true for crop, livestock, dairy, or poultry farmers. In farming, as in other fields, a person’s success depends greatly on education, motivation, and keeping up with the latest developments.
Average Farmer Salaries: ( 35,000 - 150,000 In USD as of Apr 16, 2015)
Farmers’ incomes vary greatly from year to year, since the prices of farm products fluctuate according to weather conditions and the amount and quality of what all farmers were able to produce. A farm that shows a large profit one year may show a loss for the following year. Most farmers, especially those running small farms, earn incomes from nonfarm activities that are several times larger than their farm incomes. Farm incomes also vary greatly depending on the size and type of farm. In general, large farms generate more income than small farms. Exceptions include some specialty farms that produce low-volume but high-quality horticultural and fruit products.
The Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average farm household income to be $83,660 in 2005. This income, it is important to note, includes earnings from off-farm jobs, businesses, and other sources. Farm managers who worked full-time had median annual earnings of $51,160 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The lowest paid 10 percent of farm managers earned less than $30,500 a year, and the top 10 percent of all farm managers earned $86,730 or more a year. Farmers and ranchers earned salaries that ranged from less than $20,540 to more than $56,720 in 2005, with a median of $34,140.
The farmer’s daily life has its rewards and dangers. Machine-related injuries, exposure to the weather, and illnesses caused by allergies or animal-related diseases are just some of the hazards that farmers face on a regular basis. In addition, farms are often isolated, away from many conveniences and necessities, such as immediate medical attention.
Farming can be a difficult and frustrating career, but for many it is a satisfying way of life. The hours are long and the work is physically strenuous, but working outdoors and watching the fruits of one’s labor grow before one’s eyes can be very rewarding. The changing seasons bring variety to the day-to-day work. Farmers seldom work five eight-hour days a week. When harvesting time comes or the weather is right for planting or spraying, farmers work long hours to see that everything gets done. Even during the cold winter months they stay busy repairing machinery and buildings. Dairy farmers and other livestock farmers work seven days a week year round.
Employment of farmers and ranchers is expected to decline through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The department predicts that employment for farm and ranch managers will grow more slowly than the average during that same time span. Every year can be different for farmers, as production, expansion, and markets are affected by weather, exports, and other factors. Land prices are expected to drop some, but so are the prices for grain, hogs, and cattle. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. government actively aided farmers, but in recent years has attempted to step back from agricultural production. But the state of farming today calls for more government involvement. Some trends that farmers may follow in their efforts to increase income include more diversified crop production; for example, farmers may choose to plant high-oil or high-protein corn, which bring more money in the marketplace. But these new grains also require different methods of storage and marketing.
Large corporate farms are fast replacing the small farmer, who is being forced out of the industry by the spiraling costs of feed, grain, land, and equipment. The late 1970s and early 1980s were an especially hard time for farmers. Many small farmers were forced to give up farming; some lost farms that had been in their families for generations. Some small-scale farmers, however, have found opportunities in organic food production, farmers’ markets, and similar market niches that require more direct personal contact with their customers.
Despite the great difficulty in becoming a farmer today, there are many agriculture-related careers that involve people with farm production, marketing, management, and agribusiness. Those with an interest in farming will likely have to pursue these alternative career paths.
For More Information
The AFBF’s Web site features legislative news, state farm bureau news, online brochures, and information on Farm Bureau Programs such as AFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers Program. This program, for ages 18 to 35, offers educational conferences, networking opportunities, and competitive events.
American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF)
600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20024-2520
For information on certification, contact
American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers
950 Cherry Street, Suite 508
Denver, CO 80222-2664
To learn about farmer-owner cooperatives and how cooperative businesses operate, contact
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
50 F Street, NW, Suite 900
Washington, DC 20001-1530
For information on farm policies, homeland security issues, and other news relating to the agricultural industry, visit the USDA’s Web site.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250-0002