When asked about his decision to pursue farming, Harold Nilsen talks about his roots. "I was born into it and grew up learning a lot on my family's dairy farm. That's not to say my education hasn't helped me, though. In fact, my dad insisted on college. These days, without some kind of education beyond high school, it's hard to succeed in any kind of agriculture." Nilsen, 27, is one of the next-generation of farmers, or producers as their commonly called within the industry, who are not just hard working but also educated and business-savvy.
Make no mistake, farming is big business in California and a mainstay of its economy. In 2000, agricultural production accounted for over $25 billion in cash receipts, nearly doubling number two Texas. The 87,000 farms statewide currently employ roughly 300,000 workers and produce over 350 crop and livestock commodities. That's why for those interested and dedicated, there's plenty of opportunities to succeed in the agriculture industry.
The Scope of Agriculture
But just what opportunities exist in the agriculture industry? While farmers and ranchers are most commonly associated with the business, a wide variety of occupations exist, from field workers to agriculture specialists in real estate and finance, who manage the land properly and ensure the commodities make it from the farm to the grocery store or even to the international marketplace. In 2000, California exported $6.5 billion in agricultural commodities.
While today's farmers might still prefer denim over white collars, they also might be just as likely to have an MBA or other specialized degree hanging in their office. Modern, progressive farmers are educated business people and managers. "One of the most significant parts of my job is managing the farm's employees," Nilsen says. "The environment may be a dairy farm, but I'm using skills anybody in any management position would need."
Joe Stasulat, program manager of the UC Davis Internship and Careers Center, specializes in helping students and alumni find work in agriculture and environmental sciences. "Farming responsibilities have greatly increased, spurred by rapid escalation in technology, equipment, chemistry and capital, from the mid-1940s to today," Stasulat contends. "The industry has been converted from primarily family farmers to the present circumstances of our farmers producing food and other agricultural products for the nation and the world. The latest factors making farming even more complex are environmental and international trade issues."
Ag Identity Crisis?
The term for businesses that support the producers themselves is agribusiness. Agribusiness provides services such as farm-to-processing plant or plant-to-market deliveries and aerial crop dusting, and products such as feed, farm equipment, pesticides and herbicides, and so much more.
Stasulat doesn't think the term agribusiness adequately conveys the industry's scope. "One of the biggest dilemmas agriculture faces is the vague terminology we use to delineate and describe facets of the industry outside of farming itself," he explains. "The term 'agribusiness' was coined back in the 1950s, but hasn't really caught on with the public. Here's an enormous industry, and we haven't put a label on it. How do you get young people interested without adequate terminology? Everybody knows what an astronaut or a fireman is, but in agriculture, beyond farmer, it all becomes vague to most people, even the roles of grocery store employees who actually sell us the products," Stasulat says. "What do you call the guy who turns milk into cheese, or the woman on a cruise ship who makes sure we have fresh food out at sea. Who brings the food to the grocery store? Of course these jobs have titles, but it's an area of public relations we must improve."
We buy or use agricultural products every day, and in fact, couldn't live without them. We see open land, and perhaps we even realize that it's productive farmland. However, since agriculture, as Stasulat says, seems to be a bit of an invisible industry, let's examine a few of the available options.
Farm labor contractors organize farm workforces, acting as agents between the farmer and the workers. Many crops are seasonal, requiring different duties and different numbers of workers throughout the year. The labor contractor arranges for the right crew to be in the right place at the right time, allowing the farmer to focus on his core responsibilities. The contractors generally have to have some prior experience in labor management.
Trade associations exist for every agricultural commodity imaginable. They are usually nonprofit organizations and offer a variety of office or traveling positions to those with adequate backgrounds and the motivation to promote the specific commodity. As with any other business office, there are positions suitable for someone without a college degree, but to climb the ladder, an appropriate degree and understanding of agriculture is necessary.
Agriculture communications is a much bigger field than most people realize. Many of these jobs go hand in hand with trade organizations, government agencies, marketing ventures, and other public relations avenues, such as news publications and television broadcasts. Writers, editors, reporters and broadcasters with knowledge of the agriculture industry can find lucrative opportunities in this specialty.
nCalifornia boasts several schools with outstanding agricultural programs. UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are among the best in the world. Research scientists develop cutting-edge biotechnology to improve the agriculture industry and products, and professors educate future agriculturists. These positions require every bit as much knowledge that a farmer has and more, and aren't earned without higher education.
Farming is one of the nation's most highly regulated industries. Regulatory officials work for the government at county, state and federal levels. Requirements for obtaining a job with the Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Water Resources, Department of Air Resources, or the Department of Pesticide Regulation (just to name a few) are very specific, so be sure you meet the criteria before applying.
A large portion of the transportation industry is closely linked to agriculture. Transportation of agricultural commodities from local deliveries to international passage rests with fleet managers, dis-patch agents, truck drivers, ships' captains and crews, and freight pilots among so many others. Some transportation or freight companies specialize in agricultural commodities and entire fleets are devoted to hauling cattle, or tomatoes, or delivering milk from dairies to creameries.
Ag Ed 101
How important is a college education to farmers? "Very important," contends Stasulat. "For anything beyond growing food in your backyard, it's critical these days. There are so many aspects to farming now that it requires more education and skills than ever before. The definition of 'farmer' today must encompass knowledge in land-use planning, finance, marketing, distribution, labor management, international trade and environmental issues."
What if you're not born into a farming family, as Nilsen was? Stasulat advises anyone interested in the industry to pursue education as far as possible.
"With an adequate education and the drive, you can be hired into the industry and work your way into just about any role," he explains. "You're entering an extremely competitive field that requires analytical, political, and economic skills to manage many diverse factors, but you must also have the drive."
For the industry's other supporting roles, he recommends deciding where you'd like to be in the agriculture spectrum. Your chosen discipline can apply to the agricultural community. Your business degree with an emphasis on international marketing could help sell fruits and vegetables abroad, or your chemistry degree could help develop the next great taste in wine. Stasulat concludes, "Complement and enhance your chosen field with some understanding of agriculture, and many doors can open."
For more information on agricultural employment, visit these websites:
- Farms.com - provides news/information on everything agricultural in the US. Also has a careers section that includes tools and links for employers and jobseekers.
- Agri-Search, Inc. - agri-search.com, a job placement firm for the agriculture industry specializing in Grain, Agronomy, Equipment, Seed, Precision Agriculture, Farm Operations, Accounting/Finance and Livestock/Feed.
- Agricultural Labour Pool - agri-labourpool.com, a recruitment and job-seeking assistance service for both employers and workers in Canada and the US.
- AgCall.com/recruiting.htm - a project management, consulting and recruiting company.
- AGRI-associates - nvo.com/agriassociates, specializes in recruiting for professional positions in agribusiness.
- Ag Jobs USA - agjobsusa.com, a fee based ($50 for potential employees) recruiting company specializing in the agriculture industry.
- Bestard Agricultural Placements - bestard.on.ca, searches for candidates for the Agri-business industry - in feed, crop, animal health, seed, banking, credit, fertilizer, crop protection, advertising agencies, retail and equipment sectors of agriculture in Canada and the US.
- Future Farmers of America - ffa.org, youth educational organization for agriculture.