Farm output and income are strongly influenced by the weather, disease, fluctuations in prices of domestic farm products, and Federal farm programs. In crop-production operations, farmers and managers usually determine the best time to plant seed, apply fertilizer and chemicals, and harvest and market the crops. Many carefully plan the combination of crops they grow, so that if the price of one crop drops, they will have sufficient income from another crop to make up the loss. Farmers, ranchers, and managers monitor the constantly changing prices for their products. They use different strategies to protect themselves from unpredictable changes in the markets for agricultural products. If they plan ahead, they may be able to store their crops or keep their livestock to take advantage of higher prices later in the year. Those who participate in the futures market enter contracts on future delivery of agricultural goods. These contracts can minimize the risk of sudden price changes by guaranteeing a certain price for farmers' and ranchers' agricultural goods when they are ready to sell.
While most farm output is sold to food-processing companies, some farmers—particularly operators of smaller farms—may choose to sell their goods directly to consumers through farmers' markets. Some use cooperatives to reduce their financial risk and to gain a larger share of the prices consumers pay. For example, in community-supported agriculture, cooperatives sell shares of a harvest to consumers prior to the planting season. This frees the farmer from having to bear all the financial risks and ensures a market for the produce of the coming season. Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers also negotiate with banks and other credit lenders to get the best financing deals for their equipment, livestock, and seed.
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.
The type of farm managers operate determines their specific tasks. On crop farms—farms growing grain, cotton, other fibers, fruit, and vegetables—farmers are responsible for preparing, tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting. After the harvest, they make sure that the crops are properly packaged, stored, and marketed. Livestock, dairy, and poultry farmers and ranchers feed and care for animals and keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean and in good condition. They also plan and oversee breeding and marketing activities. Both farmers and ranchers operate machinery and maintain equipment and facilities, and both track technological improvements in animal breeding and seeds, and choose new or existing products.
The size of the farm or ranch often determines which of these tasks farmers and ranchers handle themselves. Operators of small farms usually perform all tasks, physical and administrative. They keep records for management and tax purposes, service machinery, maintain buildings, and grow vegetables and raise animals. Operators of large farms, by contrast, have employees who help with the physical work. 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 usually do not plant, harvest, or perform other production activities; instead, they hire and supervise farm and livestock workers, who perform most daily production tasks. 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.
Horticultural specialty farmers oversee the production of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants used in landscaping, including turf. They also grow nuts, berries, and grapes for wine. 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, ranchers, and other agricultural managers held about 888,300 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers were as follows:
- Self-employed workers - 66%
- Crop production - 18%
- Animal production and aquaculture - 14%
Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers typically work outdoors but also may spend time in an office. Their work is often physically demanding.
Some farmers work primarily with crops. Other farmers and ranchers handle livestock.
Injuries and Illnesses
The work environment for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers can be hazardous. Tractors, tools, and other farm machinery and equipment can cause serious injury, and exposure to substances in pesticides and fertilizers may be harmful. These workers must operate equipment and handle chemicals properly to avoid accidents and safeguard themselves and the environment.
Most farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers work full time, and many work more than 40 hours per week. Farm work is often seasonal, and the number of hours worked may change according to the season. 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 the next season’s crops, market their output, and repair and maintain machinery. Managers of greenhouses, nurseries, or farms that operate in mild or temperate climates may work year round.
On livestock-producing farms and ranches, work goes on throughout the year. Animals must be fed and cared for every day.
On large farms, farmers and farm managers meet with farm supervisors. Managers who oversee several farms may divide their time between traveling to meet farmers and landowners and working in offices to plan farm operations.Education & Training Required
Most farmers receive their training on the job, often by being raised on a farm. However, the completion of a 2-year associate degree or a 4-year bachelor's degree at a college of agriculture is becoming increasingly important for farm managers and for farmers and ranchers who expect to make a living at farming.
Students should select the college most appropriate to their interests and location. All State university systems have at least one land-grant college or university with a school of agriculture. Common programs of study include business with a concentration in agriculture, farm management, 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.
Agricultural colleges teach technical knowledge of crops, growing conditions, and plant diseases. They also teach prospective ranchers and dairy farmers the basics of veterinary science and animal husbandry. Students also study how the environment is affected by farm operations, such as the impact of various pesticides on local animals.
New farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers often spend time working under an experienced farmer to learn how to apply the skills learned through academic training. Those without academic training often take many years to learn how weather, fertilizers, seed, feeding or breeding affect the growth of crops or the raising of animals in addition to other aspects of farming. A small number of farms offer formal apprenticeships to help young people learn the practical skills of farming and ranching.
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need managerial skills to organize and operate a business. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping is essential in keeping financial records, and knowledge of credit sources is vital for buying seed, fertilizer, and other needed inputs. Workers must also be familiar with safety regulations and requirements of governmental agricultural support programs. Computer skills are becoming increasingly important, especially on large farms, where they are widely used for recordkeeping and business analysis. In addition, skills in personnel management, communication, and conflict resolution are important in the operation of a farm or ranch business.
Mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with tools of all kinds also are valuable skills for a small-farm operator, who often maintains and repairs machinery or farm structures.