There are over 800,000 agricultural workers in the United States. Job growth in the next decade is projected to remain level. However, greater than average opportunities for agricultural workers will be available due to high turnover, which is high because the work is physically hard, schedules are demanding, and pay is low.
Agricultural workers are primarily employed on ranches, farms, slaughterhouses, and greenhouses. Various tasks include herding, animal husbandry, planting, irrigation, pesticide control, pruning, harvesting, and packing produce. Maintaining and repairing equipment is also important.
Ranch workers tend animals raised for meat, milk, fur, and eggs. They must recognize signs of disease or injury, and may help with birthing and vaccinations. In addition, daily chores include feeding and watering, turning animals out to pasture, giving medicines or vitamins, and cleaning stables, yards, or henhouses. Dairy farm workers attach, operate, and drain milking machines. Agricultural equipment operators work with tractors, combines, spreaders, combines, threshers, and balers. Some also work with machinery to move, treat, and pack produce after harvest.
Breeders, most of whom are college educated, specialize in animal husbandry. They must carefully record details such as animal weight, diseases, injuries, and production. These records will be useful to help breeders determine which animals should be bred for certain desirable characteristics.
Agricultural workers face a range of working conditions. Tending plants, trees, and animals must be done regardless of weather. The work on ranches or farms is physically demanding. Lifting and carrying heavy loads, sliding open heavy barn doors, working with large animals that may suddenly bolt, bite, or step on a worker can result in injury. For those who enjoy hard work and rural conditions, farming or ranching is deeply satisfying.
Agricultural workers in greenhouses have more protection from weather, as most of their work is done indoors. The work involves considerable bending. Strained muscles are common. Less physical strength is required, although greenhouse workers still need to be in sound physical shape. In addition to preparing soil, seeding, transplanting, and tending plants, they may need to cut, roll, and carry sod or other heavier materials.
Few agricultural workers have routine hours across the year. In fact, schedules vary according to season and demand. During planting, harvesting, lambing, or foaling, workers must be available for extended hours. At the same time, there are periods between peak seasons when there may be little work. Migrant workers and greenhouse employees often turn to other jobs during slow seasons. Those who work with animals are more likely to have a schedule that remains relatively stable year-round, but periodically workers are required to handle sudden emergencies or births.
Chemical exposure is among the dangers agricultural workers face. Pesticides can cause illness upon exposure or over time. Other potential hazards include injury from heavy equipment, conveyor belts, sharp blades, or other tools. Farm animal workers must be careful around animals that may kick or bite.
With the exception of those working in animal husbandry, most farm workers are not required to have a high school diploma or GED. This type of work requires on-the-job training and a willingness to work hard physically. More crop production farm workers lack a diploma than workers in other agricultural areas.
While no formal education is required, experience with ranching, plants, farm work, or farm animals is a plus. A driver’s license is required for anyone operating road vehicles. In some cases, a commercial driver’s license may be required. Agricultural workers who deal with the public, such as those working in a greenhouse or nursery, will need to be personable, friendly, and willing to answer questions for customers. Greenhouse and nursery workers frequently work independently and with little supervision. They must therefore be responsible, self-motivated, and able to make logical decisions.
Farm, ranch, or greenhouse workers who wish to become crew leaders, supervisors, or managers must be able to clearly communicate, make intelligent decisions, and work with the best interests of the business in mind. They are particularly desirable if they speak a second language. Spanish is the most useful second language, and near the Canadian border, French is useful. Becoming a purchasing agent, farm management advisor, or moving into other related work are other possibilities. Some agricultural workers ultimately go into business for themselves.
Of the 800,000-plus agricultural workers in the country, more than 250,000 of them work in some area of animal production. The remaining numbers work with crops, orchards, or farm maintenance. The states where the largest number of crop workers can be found include Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. More greenhouse workers can be found in California, Florida, and Oregon than any other state.
Median hourly pay for agricultural workers ranges from about $8 to $14 depending upon the type of work. Those in crop production may be paid based upon production. There are fewer benefits in this type of work than in most others.