Agricultural workers play a large role in getting food, plants, and other agricultural products to market. Working mostly on farms or ranches, but also in nurseries and slaughterhouses, these workers have numerous and diverse duties. Among their activities are planting and harvesting crops, installing irrigation, and delivering animals. While most agricultural workers have relatively few technical skills, some have college degrees that train them to breed animals with specific traits.
Crop, nursery, and greenhouse farmworkers and laborers—the largest specialty by far—perform numerous activities related to growing and harvesting grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fiber, trees, shrubs, and other crops. They plant and seed, prune, irrigate, harvest, and pack and load crops for shipment. Farmworkers also apply pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to crops and repair fences and some farm equipment. Nursery and greenhouse workers prepare land or greenhouse beds for growing horticultural products, such as trees, plants, flowers, and sod. Their duties include planting, watering, pruning, weeding, and spraying the plants. They may cut, roll, and stack sod; stake trees; tie, wrap, and pack plants to fill orders; and dig up or move field-grown and containerized shrubs and trees.
Farm and ranch animal farmworkers—the second largest specialty—care for live farm, ranch, or water animals that may include cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, poultry, finfish, shellfish, and bees. The animals are usually raised to supply meat, fur, skins, feathers, eggs, milk, or honey. Duties may include feeding, watering, herding, grazing, castrating, branding, debeaking, weighing, catching, and loading animals; they also maintain records on animals, examine animals to detect diseases and injuries, assist in delivering animals at their birth, and administer medications, vaccinations, or insecticides. Many workers clean and maintain animal housing areas every day. On dairy farms, farmworkers operate milking machines.
Other agricultural workers known as agricultural equipment operators use a variety of farm equipment to plow, sow seeds, and maintain and harvest crops. Equipment may include tractors, fertilizer spreaders, haybines, raking equipment, balers, combines, threshers, and trucks. These workers also operate machines, such as conveyor belts, loading machines, separators, cleaners, and dryers, used in moving and treating crops after their harvest. As part of the job, workers may make adjustments and minor repairs to equipment.
Animal breeders select and breed animals using their knowledge of genetics and animal science to produce offspring with desired traits and characteristics, such as chickens that lay more eggs, pigs that produce leaner meat, and sheep with more desirable wool. Other animal breeders breed and raise cats, dogs, and other household pets. Larger and more expensive animals, such as horses and cattle, are usually bred through artificial insemination, a specialized technique which requires taking semen from the male and then inseminating the female. This process ensures better results than conventional mating and also enables one prized male to sire many more offspring. To know which animals to breed and when, animal breeders keep detailed records, including the health of the animals, their size and weight, and the amount and quality of the product produced by them. They also keep track of the traits of the offspring. Some animal breeders work as consultants for a number of farmers, but others breed and raise their own animals for sale or future breeding. For those who raise animals, tasks might include fixing and cleaning animal shelters, feeding and watering the animals, and overseeing animals' health. Some breeders supervise others who perform these tasks. Animal breeders also read journals and newsletters to learn the latest information on breeding and veterinary practices.
Agricultural workers held about 869,000 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up agricultural workers was distributed as follows:
- Farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse - 526,300
- Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural animals - 256,900
- Agricultural equipment operators - 65,000
- Agricultural workers, all other - 12,300
- Animal breeders - 8,400
The largest employers of agricultural workers were as follows:
- Crop production - 50%
- Animal production and aquaculture - 30%
- Wholesale trade - 4%
- Support activities for agriculture and forestry - 3%
Agricultural workers usually do their tasks outdoors in all kinds of weather.
Agricultural workers’ jobs may be difficult. To harvest fruits and vegetables by hand, workers frequently bend and crouch. They also lift and carry crops and tools that may be heavy.
Injuries and Illnesses
Agricultural work may be dangerous. Although agricultural workers may be exposed to pesticides applied on crops or plants, the risk is minimized if workers follow safety procedures. Tractors and other farm machinery may cause serious injuries, so workers must stay alert. Additionally, agricultural workers who deal directly with animals risk being bitten, kicked, or stung.
Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Because living crops and animals need constant care, workers’ schedules may vary to include early mornings, weekends, and holidays.
Many agricultural workers have seasonal schedules. Seasonal schedules typically include longer periods of work during planting or harvesting or when animals must be sheltered and fed.
Some agricultural workers, called migrant farmworkers, move from location to location as crops ripen. Their unsettled lifestyles and periods of unemployment between jobs may cause stress.
Education & Training Required
Most farmworkers learn their jobs quickly as they work; many do not have a high school diploma. People without a high school diploma are particularly common in the crop production sector, which is more labor-intensive and employs numerous migrant farmworkers. Other agricultural workers may require a month to a year of training on the job, depending on their responsibilities.
Other Skills Required
Experience working on a farm or around animals is helpful but not necessary to qualify for many jobs. For those who operate equipment on the road or drive a truck as part their job, a driver's license or commercial driver's license is required.
Nursery workers who deal directly with customers must be friendly and tactful. Employers also look for responsible, self-motivated individuals because nursery workers sometimes work with little supervision.
How to Advance
Farmworkers who work hard, have good communication skills, and take an interest in the business may advance to crew leader or other supervisory positions. The ability to speak both English and Spanish is quite helpful in supervisory work as well.
Some agricultural workers aspire to become farm, ranch, or other agricultural managers, or own farms or ranches themselves. In addition, their knowledge of raising and harvesting produce may provide an excellent background for becoming purchasing agents and buyers of farm products. Knowledge of working a farm as a business can also help agricultural workers become farm and home management advisors. Those who earn a college degree in agricultural science could become agricultural and food scientists.
Overall employment of agricultural workers is projected to grow 2 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations.
Despite limited employment growth, about 138,900 openings for agricultural workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Despite increased demand for crops and other agricultural products, employment growth is expected to be limited as agricultural establishments continue to use technologies that increase farmworkers’ productivity.
Employment of agricultural equipment operators is projected to increase 13 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations and faster than any other type of agricultural worker. Increased use of mechanization on farms is expected to lead to more jobs for agricultural equipment operators relative to farmworkers and laborers.
Small farms that sell their products directly to consumers through venues such as farmers’ markets might create opportunities for agricultural workers. At these popular direct-to-consumer operations, farmers may hire agricultural workers as an alternative to buying and maintaining expensive machinery.
The median annual wage for agricultural workers was $29,680 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,170, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $39,660.
Median annual wages for agricultural workers in May 2021 were as follows:
- Animal breeders - $40,090
- Agricultural equipment operators - $36,360
- Agricultural workers, all other - $32,550
- Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural animals - $29,630
- Farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse - $29,630
Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Because living plants and animals need constant care, workers’ schedules may vary to include early mornings, weekends, and holidays.
Many agricultural workers have seasonal work schedules. Seasonal schedules typically include longer periods of work during planting or harvesting or when animals must be sheltered and fed.
Some agricultural workers, called migrant farmworkers, move from location to location as crops ripen. Their unsettled lifestyles and periods of unemployment between jobs can cause stress.