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American farm operators and managers direct the activities of one of the world's largest and most productive agricultural sectors. They produce enough food and fiber to meet the needs of our Nation and to export huge quantities to countries around the world.
Farm operators may be farmer-owners or tenant farmers, who rent the use of land. Their specific tasks are determined by the type of farm they operate. On crop farmsfarms growing grain, cotton and other fibers, fruit, and vegetablesfarm operators are responsible for planning, tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting. After the harvest, they make sure that the crops are properly stored or packaged, loaded, and promptly marketed. On livestock, dairy, and poultry farms, farm operators must plan, feed, and care for the animals and keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean and in repair. They also oversee breeding, some slaughtering, and marketing activities. On horticultural specialty farms, farm operators oversee the production of ornamental plants, nursery productssuch as flowers, bulbs, shrubbery, and sodand fruits and vegetables grown in greenhouses.
Farm operators are required to make many managerial decisions. Their farm output is strongly influenced by the weather, disease, fluctuations in prices of domestic and foreign farm products, and Federal farm programs. Farm operators must determine the best time to seed, fertilize, cultivate, harvest, and market. They carefully plan the combination of crops they grow so if the price of one crop drops, they will have sufficient income from another to make up for the loss. Crop and livestock prices change frequently from one month to another. Farm operators who plan ahead may be able to store their crops or keep their livestock to take advantage of better prices later in the year. Farm operators may have to secure loans from credit agencies to finance the purchase of machinery, fertilizer, livestock, and feed. Increasingly, farm operators are using computers to keep their extensive financial and inventory records of their farming operations.
Farm operators perform tasks ranging from caring for livestock, to operating machinery, and erecting fences. The size of the farm often determines which of these tasks operators will handle themselves. Operators of large farms have employees who do much of the physical work that small-farm operators do themselves. Operators are responsible for training workers in the use of equipment and supervising them in the performance of their work. Although employment on most farms is limited to the farm operator and one or two family workers or hired employees, some large farms have 100 or more full-time and seasonal workers. Some of these workers are in nonfarm occupations, such as truckdriver, sales representative, bookkeeper, and computer specialist.
Farm managers have duties and responsibilities that vary widely. For example, the owner of a very large livestock farm may employ a farm manager to oversee a single activity such as feeding livestock. When managing a small crop farm for an absentee owner, on the other hand, a farm manager may assume responsibility for all functions, from planning the crop to participating in planting and harvesting activities. Farm management firms and corporations involved in agriculture employ highly trained professional farm managers who may manage farm operations or oversee tenant operators of several farms. In these cases, farm managers may establish output goals, determine financial constraints, and monitor production and marketing.
The soil, topography of the land, and the climate of an area generally determine the type of farming that is done. For example, wheat, corn, and other grains are most efficiently grown on large farms on level land where large, complex machinery can be used. Thus, these crops are prevalent on the prairies and plains of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Kansas, and southern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Crops that require longer growing seasons, such as cotton, tobacco, and peanuts, are grown chiefly in the South. Most of the country's fruits and vegetables come from California, Texas, and Florida. Many dairy herds are found in the areas with good pasture land, such as Wisconsin, New York, and Minnesota. In areas with large tracts of landsuch as Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, and some Western Stateslivestock and feed grain production flourish.
The work of farm operators and managers is often strenuous, their work hours are frequently long, and their days off are sometimes infrequent. Of those who worked full time, half worked 60 or more hours a week. Nevertheless, to those who enter farming, these disadvantages are outweighed by the opportunities for living in a more rural area, working outdoors, being self employed, and making a living working the land.
Many types of farming are seasonal. Although farm operators and managers on crop farms usually work from sunrise to sunset during the planting and harvesting seasons, they often work on the farm only 6 to 7 months a year. During the rest of the year they plan next season's crops, market their output, and repair machinery; some may earn additional income by working a second job off the farm.
On livestock producing farms, work goes on throughout the year. Animals must be fed and watered, and cows must be milked twice a day. Farm operators rarely get the chance to get away unless they hire an assistant or arrange for a temporary substitute.
Farm work can be hazardous. Farmers may be injured by planting and harvesting machinery or large livestock. In addition, they are subject to illnesses and diseases from improper handling and breathing of dangerous pesticides and chemicals.
On very large farms, farm operators spend substantial time meeting with farm managers or farm supervisors in charge of various activities. Professional farm managers overseeing several farms may divide their time between traveling to meet farm operators and planning the farm operations in their offices.
Farm operators and managers held about 1,327,000 jobs in 1994. About 90 percent were self employed farm operators. Most managed crop production activities while others managed livestock and dairy production. A relatively small number were involved in agricultural services such as contract harvesting and farm labor contracting.
Growing up on a family farm and participating in agricultural programs for young people sponsored by the National Future Farmers of America Organization or the 4-H youth educational programs are important sources of training for those interested in pursuing agriculture as a career. However, modern farming requires increasingly complex scientific, business, and financial decisions. Therefore, even people who were raised on farms must acquire a strong educational background. High school training should include courses in mathematics and the sciences. Completion of a 2-year and preferably a 4-year program in a college of agriculture is becoming increasingly important.
Not all future farm managers grow up on farms. For these people, a bachelor's degree in agriculture is essential. In order to qualify for a farm manager position, they will need several years' work experience in the different aspects of farm operations.
Students should select the college most appropriate to their specific interests and location. In the United States, most State university systems have a college of agriculture. Common programs of study offered include agronomy, dairy science, agricultural economics and business, horticulture, crop and fruit science, pathobiology, and animal science. Also, colleges of agriculture usually offer special programs of study covering products important to the area in which they are located, such as animal science programs at colleges in the Western and Plains States. Whatever one's interest, the college curriculum should include courses in farm production, finance, and economics.
Professional status can be enhanced through voluntary certification as an Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Certification requires several years' farm experience and the appropriate academic backgrounda bachelor's degree or preferably a master's degree in a field of agricultural scienceand passing courses and examinations relating to business, financial, and legal aspects of farm management.
Farm operators and managers need to keep abreast of continuing advances in farming methods both in the United States and abroad. They should be willing to try new processes and adapt to constantly changing technologies to produce their crops or raise their livestock more efficiently. Keeping abreast of changing foreign agricultural policies and international exchange rates is important to operators of farms producing internationally traded crops and livestock. Operators also must have enough technical knowledge of crops, growing conditions, and plant and animal diseases to make decisions ensuring the successful operation of their farms. Knowledge of the relationship between farm operationsfor example, the use of pesticidesand environmental conditions is essential. Mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with tools of all kinds also are valuable skills for the operator of a small farm, who often maintains and repairs machinery or farm structures.
Farm operators and managers must have the managerial skills necessary to organize and operate a business. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping can be helpful in keeping financial records, and a knowledge of credit sources is essential. They also must keep abreast of complex safety regulations, requirements of government agricultural support programs, and paperwork faced by other small businesses. Familiarity with computers is important, especially on large farms, where computers are often used for record keeping and business analysis. For example, some farmers use personal computers to get the latest information on prices of farm products and other agricultural news.
Employment of farm operators and managers is expected to continue to decline through the year 2005. The expanding world population is increasing the demand for food and fiber. However, increasing productivity in the highly efficient U.S. agricultural sector is expected to easily meet domestic and export requirements with fewer but larger farms. Although requirements for machinery and equipment will remain stable or increase slightly, land and labor requirements in the agricultural sector will decrease, but at a slower rate than in the past. The overwhelming majority of job openings will result from the need to replace farmers who retire or leave the occupation for economic or other reasons.
The trend toward fewer and larger farms, primarily through mergers, is expected to continue to reduce the number of jobs for farm operators and managers. (See chart.) A farm can be acquired by inheritance; however, purchasing a farm is expensive and requires substantial capital. In addition, sufficient funds are required to withstand the adverse effects of climate and price fluctuations upon farm output and income and to cover operating costslivestock, feed, seed, and fuel. Also, the complexity of modern farming and keen competition among farmers leave little room for the marginally successful farmer. Small and medium-size farms, many of which do not generate sufficient income to support the desired standard of living, are expected to decrease in number. However, the small but increasing number of horticultural farms may provide some employment opportunities.
Farmers' incomes vary greatly from year to year, because prices of farm products fluctuate depending upon weather conditions and other factors that influence the amount and quality of farm output and the demand for those products. A farm that shows a large profit in one year may show a loss in the following year. Many farmersprimarily operators of small farmshave income from off-farm business activities often several times larger than their farm income.
Farm income also varies greatly depending upon the type and size of farm. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, average cash income net of expenses in 1993 was over $100,000 for operators of vegetable and fruit, cotton, and poultry and egg farms. On the other hand, cattle and tobacco farms generated less than $15,000 in cash income, on the average. Generally, large farms generate more income than small farms. Exceptions include some low volume specialty farms producing high-value horticultural and fruit products.
Farm operators and managers who were paid a wage or salary, and who worked full time had median earnings of $314 a week in 1994. The middle half earned between $237 and $445 a week. The highest paid managers earned over $594 a week in 1994, while the lowest paid made less than $173 a week.
Farmers and self-employed farm managers make their own provisions for benefits. As members of farm organizations, they may derive benefits such as group discounts on health and life insurance premiums. Salaried farm managers may receive housing and the usual benefits such as paid vacations and health insurance.
Farmers and farm managers strive to improve the quality of agricultural products and the efficiency of farms. Workers with similar functions include agricultural engineers, animal breeders, animal scientists, county agricultural agents, dairy scientists, extension service specialists, feed and farm management advisors, horticulturists, plant breeders, and poultry scientists.
For general information about farming and agricultural occupations, contact:
American Farm Bureau Federation, 225 Touhy Ave., Park Ridge, IL 60068.
For information about certification as an accredited farm manager, contact:
American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, 950 South Cherry St., Suite 106, Denver, CO 80222.
For general information about farm occupations, opportunities, and 4-H activities, contact your local county extension service office.
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