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Agriculture

Industry Overview
The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry sector plays a vital role in our economy and our lives. It supplies us and many other countries with a wide variety of food products and non-food products such as fibers, lumber, and nursery items. It contributes positively to our foreign trade balance and it remains one of the Nation's larger industries in terms of total employment. However, technology continues to enable us to produce more of these products with fewer workers, resulting in fewer farms and farmworkers.

Agriculture, forestry, and fishing includes two large subsectors -- crop production and animal production -- plus three smaller subsectors -- forestry and logging, fishing, and agricultural support activities. Crop production includes farms that mainly grow crops used for food and fiber, while animal production includes farms and ranches that raise animals for sale or for animal products. The fishing subsector includes mainly fishers that catch fish and shellfish to sell, while the forestry and logging subsector includes establishments that grow, harvest, and sell timber. The agricultural support activities subsector includes establishments that perform any number of agricultural-related activities, such as soil preparation, planting, harvesting, or management on a contract or fee basis.

Establishments in agriculture, forestry, and fishing include farms, ranches, dairies, greenhouses, nurseries, orchards, and hatcheries. The operators, or people who run these agricultural businesses, typically either own the land in production or they lease the land from the owner. But production may also take place in the country's natural habitats and on government-owned lands and waterways, as in the case of logging, cattle-grazing, and fishing.
The vast majority of farms, ranches, and fishing companies are small enterprises, owned and operated by families as their primary or secondary source of income. Although large family farms (those generating more than $250,000 per year in gross annual sales) and corporate farms comprise less than 10 percent of the establishments in the industry, they produce three-fourths of all agricultural output. Increasingly, these large farms are being operated for the benefit of large agribusiness firms, which buy most of the product.

Industry Organization
Agricultural production is the major activity of this industry sector and it consists of two large subsectors, animal production and crop production. Animal production includes establishments that raise livestock, such as beef cattle, poultry, sheep, and hogs; farms that employ animals to produce products, such as dairies, egg farms, and apiaries (bee farms that produce honey); and animal specialty farms, such as horse farms and aquaculture (fish farms). Crop production includes the growing of grains, such as wheat, corn, and barley; field crops, such as cotton and tobacco; vegetables and melons; fruits and nuts; and horticultural specialties, such as flowers and ornamental plants. Of course, many farms have both crops and livestock, such as those that grow their own animal feed, or have diverse enterprises.

The nature of agricultural work varies, depending on the crops grown, animals being raised, and the size of the farm. Although much of the work is now highly mechanized, large numbers of people still are needed to plant and harvest some crops on the larger farms. During the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons, farmers and their employees are busy for long hours, executing such activities as plowing, disking, harrowing, seeding, fertilizing, and harvesting. Vegetables generally are still harvested manually by groups of migrant farmworkers, although new machines have been developed to replace manual labor for some fruit crops. Vegetable growers on large farms of approximately 100 acres or more usually practice "monoculture," large-scale cultivation of one crop on each division of land. Fieldwork on large grain farms—consisting of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of acres—often is done using modern agricultural equipment, such as massive tractors controlled by global positioning system (GPS) technology.

Production of some types of crops and livestock tends to be concentrated in particular regions of the country based on growing conditions and topography. For example, the warm climates of Florida, California, Texas, and Arizona are well suited for citrus fruit production, while Northern States are better suited to growing blueberries, potatoes, and apples. Grains, hogs, and range-fed cattle are major products in the Plains States, where cattle feedlots also are numerous. In the Southwest and West, ranchers raise beef cattle.

Poultry and dairy farms tend to be found in most areas of the country. Most poultry and egg farms are large operations resembling production lines. Although free-range farms allow fowl some time outside during the day for exercise and sunlight, most poultry production involves mainly indoor work, with workers repeatedly performing a limited number of specific tasks. Because of increased mechanization, poultry growers can raise chickens by the thousands—sometimes by the hundreds of thousands—under one roof. Although eggs still are collected manually in some small-scale hatcheries, eggs tumble down onto conveyor belts in larger hatcheries. Machines then wash, sort, and pack the eggs into individual cartons. Workers place the cartons into boxes and stack the boxes onto pallets for shipment.

Aquaculture farmers raise fish and shellfish in salt, brackish, or fresh water, depending on the requirements of the particular species. Small fish farms usually use ponds, floating net pens, raceways, or recirculating systems, but larger fish farms are actually in the sea, relatively close to shore. Workers on aquaculture farms stock, feed, protect, and otherwise manage aquatic life to be sold for consumption or used for recreational fishing.

Horticulture farms raise ornamental plants, bulbs, shrubbery, sod, and flowers. Although much of the work takes place outdoors, in colder climates, substantial production also takes place in greenhouses or hothouses. The work can be year-round on such farms.

Workers employed in the forestry and logging subsector grow and harvest timber on a long production cycle of 10 years or more, and specialize in different stages of the production cycle. Those engaged in reforestation handle seedlings in specialized nurseries. Workers in timber production remove diseased or damaged trees from timberland, as well as brush and debris that could pose a fire hazard. Besides commercial timberland, they may also work in natural forests or other suitable areas of land that remain available for production over a long duration. Logging workers harvest timber, which becomes lumber for construction, wood products, or paper products. They cut down trees, remove their tops and branches, and cut their trunks into logs of specified length. They usually use a variety of specialized machinery to move logs to loading areas and load them on trucks for transport to papermills and sawmills.

People employed in the fishing subsector harvest fish and shellfish from their natural habitat in fresh water and in tidal areas and the ocean, and their livelihood depends on a naturally replenishing supply of fish, lobster, shellfish, or other edible marine life. Some full-time and many part-time fishers work on small boats in relatively shallow waters, often in sight of land. Crews are small—usually only one or two people collaborate on all aspects of the fishing operation. Others fish hundreds of miles offshore on large commercial fishing vessels. Navigation and communication are essential for the safety of all of those who work on the water, but particularly for those who work far from shore. Large boats, capable of hauling a catch of tens of thousands of pounds of fish, require a crew that includes a captain, or "skipper," a first mate and sometimes a second mate, a boatswain (called a deckboss on some smaller boats), and deckhands to operate the fishing gear, sort and load the catch when it is brought to the deck, and aid in the general operation of the vessel.

The final subsector of agriculture, forestry, and fishing includes companies that provide agricultural support services to establishments in the other subsectors. On farms that primarily grow crops, these activities may include farm management services, soil preparation, planting and cultivating services, as well as crop harvesting and post-harvesting services. Other support services companies provide aerial dusting and spraying of pesticides over a large number of acres. They may also perform post-harvesting tasks to prepare crops for market, including shelling, fumigating, cleaning, grading, grinding, and packaging agricultural products. Typically, such support services are provided to the larger farms that are run more like businesses. As farms get larger, it becomes more economical as well as necessary to hire specialists to perform a range of farm services, from pest management to animal breeding. Establishments providing farm management services manage farms on a contract or fee basis. As more farms are owned by absentee landowners and corporations, farm managers are being hired to run the farms. They make decisions about planting and harvesting, and they do most of the hiring of farmworkers and specialists.

The agricultural support services subsector also includes farm labor contractors who specialize in supplying labor for agricultural production. Farm labor contractors provide and manage temporary farm laborers—often migrant workers—who usually work during peak harvesting times. Contractors may place bids with farmers to harvest labor-intensive crops such as fruit, nuts, and vegetables or perform other short-term tasks. Once the bid is accepted, the contractor, or crew leader, organizes and supervises the laborers as they harvest, load, move, and store the crops.

Establishments that supply support activities for animal production perform services that may include breeding, pedigree record services, boarding horses, livestock spraying, and sheep dipping and shearing. Workers in establishments providing breeding services monitor herd condition and nutrition, evaluate the quality and quantity of forage, recommend adjustments to feeding when necessary, identify the best cattle or other livestock for breeding and calving, advise on livestock pedigrees, inseminate cattle artificially, and feed and care for sires.

Recent Developments
The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry sector is being transformed by the implementation of science and technology in almost every phase of the agricultural process. For example, bioengineered crops that are resistant to pests or frost or that can withstand drought conditions enable farmers to produce more food without using costly insecticides and irrigation. The use of GPS in tractors helps farmers to cut the time it takes to plant and harvest a crop and enables more rows of crops to be planted per acre. And the latest science in genetics is being used to breed animals with specific characteristics. The use of modern equipment and technology has changed the way ranching is done. Branding and vaccinating of herds, for example, are largely mechanized. The use of trucks, portable communications gear, and global positioning equipment now is common and saves valuable time for ranchers.

Marketing is becoming more important in agriculture. For small farms to make money, many have had to come up with ways to bypass the middleman and sell directly to consumers or other end users. For example, some fruit and vegetable growers use the marketing strategy of "pick-your-own" produce, set up roadside stands, or sell at farmers' markets. More local growers are contracting with nearby restaurants or grocery stores to sell their produce, many of which are being ordered over the Internet by customers.

Another development is the use of crops, particularly corn, to produce ethanol as a source of energy. The impact of this development on the agriculture industry is not yet known. The rise in the price of corn will no doubt help corn farmers, but may have unintended effects as land used for other crops is taken out of production and replaced with corn, and the rising price of corn causes problems for consumers of other corn products and producers that feed corn to animals. Organic farming, however, provides farmers with tremendous growth opportunities. The 2008 Farm Act, which provides farmers funding to convert their operations to organic agriculture, is expected to continue bolstering this segment. Its success is shown in the doubling of acreage devoted to it between 2002 and 2005, with more than 4 million acres of both pastureland and crops farmed organically. Sales of organically raised foodstuffs have grown four-fold since 1997, and the prospects for more such growth seem all but certain.

Working Environment 
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing attract people who enjoy working with animals, living an independent lifestyle, or working outdoors on the land. For some, however, there may be office or laboratory environments - or a mixture of the two. Some of the work done by those with a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who work in agriculture may spend some time in an office setting and some time outdoors -- depending on the work they do in support of the agriculture industry.

Employment
The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry employs a total of 1.3 million wage and salary workers plus an additional 850,600 self-employed and unpaid family workers, making it one of the largest industries in the nation. Over 86 percent of employment is in crop production and animal production. Most establishments in agriculture, forestry, and fishing are very small. Nearly 78 percent employ fewer than 10 workers. Overall, this industry sector is also unusual in that self-employed and unpaid family workers account for such a high proportion of its workforce.

STEM Degree Paths into this Industry
There are many career paths into every industry...within the Career Cornerstone Center we focus on describing the STEM and Medicine (STEM) career paths that may be prevalent in a given industry.  Bioengineers work on developing crops that are resistant to disease; veterinarians are needed in dairy operations and herds of cattle, and engineers are continually developing new equipment for irrigation, harvesting and seeding to streamline production and reduce production costs.

Industry Forecast
Employment in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry sector is projected to experience little or no change over the 2008-2018 period, which is a contrast to many years of employment declines. Rising costs, greater productivity, increasing urbanization, and greater imports of lumber and fish will cause many workers to leave this industry, although at a slower pace than in the past.

Market pressures on the family farm will continue to drive consolidation in the industry, as the more prosperous farms become bigger so as to achieve greater economies of scale, along with a greater portion of farm subsidies. In addition, increasing productivity overall means that it takes less farm labor to produce crops and livestock than in the past. For many farmers, the low prices for many agricultural goods have not kept up with the increasing costs of farming. For those who need to make a living from their farm, these conditions make it difficult for many small farmers to survive.

Employment declines in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, however, are being moderated by other changes taking place in agriculture. For instance, domestic consumers are increasingly gravitating toward purchasing their agricultural products from farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and other locally grown food producers. Exports for agricultural products also are rising, reflecting international demand. New developments in the marketing of milk and other agricultural produce through farmer-owned and -operated cooperatives hold promise for some dairy and other farms. Furthermore, demand continues to rise for organic farm produce—grown to a great extent on small- to medium-sized farms. The production of crops without the use of pesticides and certain chemicals is allowing farms of small acreage to remain economically viable. Also, some Federal, State, and local government programs provide assistance targeted at small farms. For example, some programs allow farmers to sell the development rights to their property to nonprofit organizations devoted to preserving green space. This immediately lowers the market value of the land—and the property taxes levied on it—making farming more affordable.

Employment in aquaculture had been growing steadily in recent years in response to growth in the demand for fish. However, competition from imported farm-raised fish and unsettled regulatory concerns about environmental impacts of fish farms is slowing the growth of aquaculture.

In fishing, increases in imports and efforts to revive many fisheries through stringent limits on fishing activity will continue to lead to employment declines. In certain areas of the country, such as Alaska, prudent management has sustained healthy fisheries that should continue to harvest massive amounts of fish. In other areas, fisheries have been damaged by coastal pollution and depleted by years of overfishing. In these areas there will be fewer jobs for fishers.

The logging subsector should experience more favorable employment prospects for the first time in many years. Though domestic timber producers continue to face competition from foreign producers who can harvest the same amount of timber at lower cost, foreign and domestic demand for new wood products, such as wood pellets, is expected to result in some employment growth. New policies allowing some access to Federal timberland may result in some logging jobs, and Federal legislation designed to prevent destructive wildfires by proactively thinning forests in susceptible regions also may result in additional jobs.

The forestry subsector is also projected to show an increase in wage and salary workers as owners of forested lands are expected to hire people to plant and raise timber stands. However, professionals in the forestry industry will likely turn to self-employment as consultants.

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Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
 


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