Farming in the United States has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the past century. In the early 1900s, about half of the U.S. population lived in rural communities, and over 40% of people worked on small farms. By the 21st century, only about 2% of the labor force worked on farms.
At its peak in 1935, 6.8 million farms existed in the United States—now only 2 million remain. However, since 1900, the average farm size has increased by 67% and has become highly specialized. While most farms in 1900 produced an average of five commodities, most farms today focus on only one type of produce or livestock.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the farming industry is that most farmers are born into the business, and 97% of farms still are family-run. However, with a rapidly growing interest in organic, niche, and environmentally sustainable farming, more people who don’t have a farming background are entering the industry.
If you’re interested in farming, now is an excellent time to explore opportunities in this billion-dollar industry that the government heavily subsidizes. The vast majority of farmers are nearing the age of retirement, and the industry needs younger workers to take their place. Also, the locally grown foods and compassionately raised livestock movements—and an increase in vineyard and cannabis farming—are opening new career opportunities.
What Does a Farmer Do?
Farming is a complex, challenging, and rewarding career. You’ll find many types of farming, and each type requires specialized expertise and skills. Farmers raise crops, livestock, fish, poultry, dairy cows, honeybees, trees, ornamental plants, and more.
The types of commodities and the scale at which farmers produce them depend on their operational focus. All farmers must maintain equipment and facilities specific to their operations. The daily demands of running a farm vary according to the business focus, but generally, they divide into crop and livestock farming duties.
Most crop farms are in California and the Midwest, but you can find crop farms throughout the United States. According to the USDA, the most common crops are corn, cotton, fruit, legumes, nuts, rice, soybeans, vegetables, and wheat. Crop farmers’ responsibilities include:
- Preparing land for crop planting
- Caring for crops throughout the growing cycle
- Harvesting crops
- Storing crops
- Selling crops to processing companies or at market
Most farmers work long hours. Crop farm work is seasonal, so hours will fluctuate depending on the time of year. Even after farmers harvest the crops, they need to plan for the next season and repair equipment.
California, Texas, the Midwest, and the Southeast are centers for livestock farms and ranches. The most common types of U.S. livestock are chickens, cattle, dairy cows, pigs, and turkeys. Common types of specialty livestock include fish, shellfish, bees, rabbits, mink, ducks, sheep, and goats.
A livestock farmer’s duties vary greatly depending on the type of animal and its purpose. An apiary (bee) farmer’s daily life is much different than that of a cattle rancher. Livestock farmers need highly specialized knowledge and skills in humanely raising and caring for their animals. Typical duties include:
- Feeding and sheltering
- Raising and storing feed crops
- Managing animal waste
- Administering vaccinations and medications
- Monitoring for diseases
- Breeding and assisting in birthing
- Marketing and selling animals or the products they produce
- Transporting animals
If an agricultural is appealing and you are a water lover, did you know professional fisherman is a career option? Yep, really!
Farmer Education Costs
The USDA defines a farm as selling at least $1,000 of agricultural or livestock products a year. So, by this definition, you need very little education or training to become a “farmer” if you’re going to grow produce in a small plot and sell it at a local stand. However, if you want to become a successful career farmer, you will need education, training, and experience.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that most people entering farming today have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a related field of study. The average cost of education is between $20,000 and $120,000. Farming degree and certification programs focus on topics like:
- Agricultural business
- Agricultural economics
- Agricultural technology
- Agronomy (the science of crop production and soil management)
- Animal nutrition
- Animal science
- Crop science
- Dairy science
- Farm and ranch management
- Fishing and fisheries
- Fruit science
- Plant science
- Sustainable agriculture
Common types of educational programs for prospective farmers include:
Bachelor’s degree: A 4-year bachelor’s degree in agriculture usually focuses on plant, animal, and soil management as well as managing the business side of farming. Many graduates have a particular focus in:
- Agricultural technology and business management
- Soil and plant science and technology
- Livestock science and management
- Pest control
Associate’s degree: Many 2-year associate’s degree programs focus on business skills specific to agriculture, farm equipment operation, and animal husbandry. These degree programs typically involve hands-on experience.
Certification: The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers offers certification courses on-farm management and agricultural consulting. The USDA provides a library of other certification courses.
Continuing education courses: If you have a degree in another field or would like to supplement your education, you can take continuing education classes either online or in person. Schools, cooperative extensions, and government agencies offer a wealth or farm-related courses. The USDA maintains a library of supplemental educational resources for prospective farmers.
Farmer Education Resources
Regardless of what type of farming you’re interested in or how much classroom study you achieve, you will need considerable hands-on training to launch a successful career. Most agricultural degree programs include field training and internships, but farming demands intensive experience before establishing your farm.
Following are some suggestions to gain experience and skills:
- Find a mentor through the SCORE Program: This free program, sponsored by the USDA, matches prospective farmers and ranchers with experienced mentors. In 2019, the program helped start nearly 30,000 businesses and create over 97,000 jobs.
- Explore organizations that have received grants to train new farmers: The USDA and other organizations give grants to schools and organizations to provide in-the-field training. Find out who has received funds each year and apply for training.
- Check out other mentoring programs: BeginningFarmers.org maintains an up-to-date library of mentoring and apprentice opportunities.
- Take a hands-on course: Several farms offer hands-on instruction to help you gain experience. BeginningFarmers.org provides a list of farm-based training opportunities.
- Find a farm job: Get on-the-job training by working for a couple of years at a farm or ranch. You’ll learn every aspect of farming from the ground up. Here are a few online job banks:
In addition to having an in-depth knowledge of agricultural business and science, farmers need to know how to operate and repair various machinery. Standard farm equipment includes trucks, tractors, sprayers, combines, and harvesters, as well as smaller tools and equipment. A farmer should have the necessary construction skills to make repairs to facilities and infrastructure.
Starting Your Own Farm
The dream of most farmers is to run their own farms. Once you have the education and training, how do you start your farm? Although every farm has different needs in terms of equipment, staff, livestock, and crops, they all require an investment of time and money.
According to the USDA, about 25% of farmers are new, with less than ten years of experience. If a farm grosses less than $350,000 per year, it qualifies as a small farm by the USDA.
If you’re considering starting a small farm, you’re in good company.
Below are a few essential steps to starting a farm.
Create a business plan
First and foremost, a farm is a business. Craft a plan that will detail such operating details as:
- Operating budget
- Profit forecast
- Land costs
- Crops and animals
- Equipment and facilities
- Insurance and maintenance costs
- Cost of production, transportation, and marketing
- Emergency, disaster, and weather-related downturn plans
- Determine your legal structure
Many new farmers find that it’s better to lease land than buy it outright. Leasing allows new farmers to fine-tune their business before investing in property. It reduces financial risk and requires less of an initial investment.
If you would prefer buying land for your farm, here are some factors to consider:
- Access to a water source: Regardless of what type of farm you have, you’ll need access to a reliable source of water.
- Quality of soil: This is particularly important if you are starting a crop farm. Get a soil test through a professional company or a local agricultural extension service.
- Infrastructure and transportation routes: What buildings and facilities does the land need to support? Does the farm have easy access to roads?
- Land’s proximity to sales channels: Is the property close to where you will be selling or transporting your products?
Most small farmers need help financing their operations. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) earmarks funds annually to help new farmers finance their businesses. The FSA offers several financing opportunities for beginning farmers, including:
The FSA also offers funds to underserved populations interested in entering farming, including minority and female farmers and Native Americans. The USDA also provides special financing for veterans of the armed services, who account for about 11% of farmers.
For more information on starting a farm, Cornell University offers a free course on becoming a farmer.
Average Salary and Job Outlook for Farmers
Farmer’s salaries vary wildly based on what they produce, product price fluctuations, and weather conditions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a farmer is about $71,000.
By 2029, the BLS projects employment for farmers will decline by 6%. Increased efficiencies in farming and the trend toward larger but fewer farms mean fewer jobs. However, despite the decline, the BLS projects about 81,000 openings for farmers annually.
However, people who pursue farming will find ample opportunities for success. The global population will be close to 10 billion by 2050, and an intense focus exists on finding ways to feed people. The U.S. farming industry is at the forefront of developing technological advances to produce more food in less time.
Also, BLS sees opportunities for small farms that sell directly to consumers through online stores and farmer’s markets. Furthermore, niche farming is showing promise. For example, the USDA reported that organic products now account for more than 4% of total U.S. food sales and projects that the cannabis farming market will grow by 14% by 2027.
Pros & Cons of Being a Farmer
- Making a difference: The average U.S. farm feeds more than 165 people annually. A dairy cow can produce enough milk for 10 pounds of cheese a day.
- Variety of work: Every day brings new experiences and challenges for farmers.
- Job satisfaction: Studies show that farmers are happier than nearly 80% of all other professions.
- Long hours and physically intensive work: Farmers typically work from dawn until dusk during busy seasons.
- Pay and profit depend on factors outside of your control: Weather conditions, global trade wars, and contagious diseases among livestock are just some factors that can impact your bottom line.
- Social isolation: Farming can be solitary work preventing you from interacting with people outside of your family regularly.
Are You Ready to Become a Farmer?
Farming is challenging but deeply rewarding work. As a farmer, you will make a global impact by developing products and techniques to feed the world. You can be your own boss and spend your career working outside instead of behind a desk.
Because 97% of U.S. farms are family-owned, farming allows you to create a business that you can pass down through the generations. New niche farming markets and technological advances are offering more opportunities to develop an environmentally friendly and sustainable world.
If you’ve decided that the financial and time commitment required to become a farmer isn’t right for you, please take the opportunity to explore other vocational and trade careers on Blue Collar Brain.