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Farm operators and managers.

Farm Operators and Managers

America's farms are the most productive in the world. They produce enough food and fiber to meet the needs of our Nation and to export huge quantities to countries around the world. The people responsible for the bountiful harvests that fill our supermarkets are the country's farm operators-- who own or, as tenant farmers, rent a farm--and farm managers--who direct operations on one or more farms for a corporation or absentee owners.

The 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, flat farms on which large and sophisticated machinery can best be used. Thus, these crops are ideal for the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. 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. Crops that can be grown in a short season--for example, potatoes--are raised in Northern States, such as Idaho, Washington, and Maine. Dairy herds are best suited for areas with good pastureland, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York. Livestock production requires large tracts of grazing land and thus is concentrated in Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, and other Western States.

Nature of the Work

Farm operators and managers must make numerous decisions concerning what to produce and when to sell. Farm operators must determine the best time to seed, fertilize, cultivate, and harvest. They must carefully plan the combination of crops they grow so that, if the price of one crop drops, they will have sufficient income from another. Once a crop is harvested, operators and managers must decide either to sell their produce immediately or to store it in hopes of a later rise in prices.

Working the land also requires considerable work with people. Although employment on most farms is limited to the farm operator and one or two family workers or hired employees, large farms often have 100 or more full-time workers, some of whom are in nonfarm occupations, such as truckdriver, sales representative, and clerk. Farm operators must train and supervise them. Managers, too, must determine who should perform the physical labor on the farms for which they are responsible. Operators and managers may need to hire large numbers of additional workers at crucial periods, such as the harvest season. They must also decide when workers are no longer needed.

Financial matters are of great importance to farmers. Farm operators must secure loans from credit agencies to finance the purchase of machinery, fertilizer, livestock, and feed. They, like farm managers, must also keep careful financial records of the farm operation.

The tasks of farm operators are determined in part by the type of farm they work. On crop farms--those growing grain, fiber, fruit, and vegetables--operators are responsible for tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting. On livestock, dairy, and poultry farms, they feed and care for the animals and keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean. They also oversee breeding, slaughtering, and marketing activities. Besides these obviously farm-related activities, most operators perform tasks ranging from setting up and operating machinery to erecting fences and sheds.

Working Conditions

On farms that raise animals for meat or dairy products, work goes on constantly throughout the year. Because animals must be fed and watered every day and cows must be milked twice daily, operators of these farms rarely get the chance to be away. Many other types of farming, however, are seasonal. Although many farm operators and managers on crop farms work from sunup to sundown during the planting and harvesting seasons, they often work on the farm only 6 to 7 months a year; many have second jobs off the farm.

Farm work can be extremely hazardous; each year, many farmers are injured by planting and harvesting machinery. Also, they are subject to illnesses and diseases from handling and breathing dangerous pesticides and chemicals and from handling crops that have been sprayed with insecticides.

Working conditions for operators of very large farms and professional managers differ greatly from those of most farm operators. On very large farms, farm operators spend substantial time meeting with farm managers or farm supervisors in charge of various activities. Professional farm managers spend much time planning and scheduling farm operations while in their offices; they must also travel from farm to farm in order to determine conditions and inspect farm operation, as well as meet with farm operators.


In 1984, farm operators and managers held 1,442,000 jobs; the vast majority of these workers were operators. Almost 60 percent of the operators and managers worked on farms that produced crops; the rest managed livestock production. Agricultural services, such as contract harvesting and farm labor contracting, employed a relatively small number of farm operators and managers.

Qualifications and Advancement

Growing up on a family farm and participating in farming programs for young people sponsored by the Future Farmers of America or the 4-H clubs is an important source of training for prospective farmers. However, modern farming requires increasingly complex scientific and business decisions. Even young people who have lived on farms must acquire a strong educational background. Their high school training should include courses in mathematics and the sciences. Completion of a 2-year or, preferably, a 4-year program in a college of agriculture is essential for people without farm experience who aspire to become farmers or farm managers.

Students should select the college most appropriate to their interests. Most colleges of agriculature offer major programs of study in areas such as dairy science, agricultural economics and business, horticulture, crop and fruit science, soil science, and animal science. Also, colleges usually offer special programs of study concerning products important to the area in which they are located, such as the range management programs at colleges in the Western and Plains States. Whatever one's interest, the college curriculum should include courses in farm management, business, and finance.

Professional farm manager status can be acquired through certification as an accredited farm manager by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Applicants must have several years of farm experience and the appropriate academic background--a bachelor's or master's degree in agricultural science--and must pass courses and examinations relating to business, financial, and legal aspects of farm management.

It is necessary to keep abreast of continuing advances in farming methods. Farm operators should be willing to try new processes and adapt to constantly changing technologies to produce their crops or raise their livestock more efficiently. Operators also must have enough technical knowledge of crops and growing conditions and plant and animal diseases to be able to make decisions that insure the successful operation of their farms. They also must have the managerial skills necessary to organize and operate a business. Mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with tools of all kinds also are valuable skills for the operators of small farms who often must maintain and repair machinery or farm structures. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping can be helpful in keeping financial records, and a knowledge of credit sources is essential.

Job Outlook

The expanding world population increases the demand for food and fiber. However, the demand will probably be met by increasing productivity. Therefore, labor requirements in agriculture will decrease, although requirements for farm land, machinery, and equipment will rise. Thus, the employment of farm operators and managers combined is expected to decline through the mid-1990's, just as it has throughout this century; the rate of decline will probably be slower than in the past.

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. The trend towards fewer and larger farms will reduce the number of jobs for operators. Thus, 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 usual way people become farm owners is to inherit a farm. The cost of purchasing a farm is prohibitive for most people. The prices of land, machinery, and equipment have been rapidly increasing, as have operating expenses for livestock, feed, seed, fertilizer, and fuel. An additional barrier to entering farming is that sufficient funds are required to overcome the adverse effects of weather and price fluctuations upon farm income. The complexity of modern farming and keen competition among farmers leave little room for the marginally successful farmer or the gentleman farmer who considers farming a hobby rather than a livelihood.

Growth in the average size of farms and in the complexity of farming is expected to spur demand for highly trained and experienced farm managers. Additional demand will come from the increasing number of absentee owners who, rather than work their farms, often hire farm managers to run the farm or oversee tenant farmers. Total employment of farm managers will probably remain low relative to operators, however.


In 1984, average annual earnings of farm operators and managers were $16,400. However, farm income varies greatly from year to year, since prices of farm products fluctuate depending upon weather conditions that influence the amount and quality of farm output. A farm that shows a large profit in one year may show a loss in the following year. Many farmers--primarily those on small farms--have off-farm income 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, vegetable, melon, and other crop farms generated an average income of over $45,000 in 1983. On the other hand, livestock and tobacco farms generated less than $10,000 in income, on the average. Generally, large farms generate more income than small farms; exceptions include some specialty farms producing low-volume but high-value horticultural and fruit products.

Related Occupations

Other occupations in which workers have functions similar to those of farmers and farm managers are agricultural engineer, agronomist, animal breeder, animal scientist, apiculturist, botanist, county agricultural agent, dairy scientist, extension service specialist, farm worker supervisor, feed and farm management advisor, horticulturist, plant breeder, poultry scientist, range manager, and soil conservationist.

Sources of Additional Information

For information about farmers and farm managers, contact

Future Farmers of America

National FFA Center

Box 15160

5632 Mt. Vernon Memorial Highway

Alexandria, Virginia 22309.

For information about certification as an accredited farm manager, contact

American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers

950 South Cherry Street

Suite G16

Denver, Colorado 80222.

For general information about farming and agricultural occupations, contact

American Farm Bureau Federation

225 Touhy Avenue

Park Ridge, Illinois 60068.

For general information about farm occupations and 4-H activities, contact your local county extension service office.

For information about agricultural education, contact

National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges

Division of Agriculture

One DuPont Circle

Suite 710

Washington, D.C. 20036.

National Postecondary Agricultural Student Organization

Box 34

Cobleskill, N.Y. 12043.

Higher Education Program

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Washington, D.C. 20250

(telephone: 202-447-7854).
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Author:Gartaganis, Arthur
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1985
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