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A Day in the Life of a Farmer

Few other occupations provide the variety of physical work, productivity, and intangible rewards associated with farming. Part of the high return rate of family members to the profession of farming is due to an emotional attachment to the lifestyle; those who choose it often wouldn't choose to do anything else. Most farms employ fewer than thirty workers, and a sense of family pervades many of these communities: "When you spend fifteen hours a day with people working to exhaustion, you get to know each other really well." Even with modern advances in farming technology, it's hard, grueling work requiring critical decision-making skills, and long, thankless hours. Long-term planning of crop yields and profits is extremely difficult, as production and income are determined by a combination of weather, disease, price fluctuation, and domestic and foreign subsidy and tariff policy. Farmers have a higher-than-average level of daily anxiety, but in general enjoy what they do and certainly enjoy what they produce. "I've never been more tired," said one farmer, "but I wouldn't trade it for the world." Farmers tend to specialize in one or a limited number of crops. The producer chooses his crop based on the climate, the land, the market and the history of growing in the region. Each crop utilizes different types of equipment and each requires different maintenance and personnel decisions. Farmers make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources and deal with unanticipated problems, such as insect infestation, drought, and fire. Over the course of any year, regular equipment and land maintenance requirements must be made. Self-motivation is a must, because those who don't take advantage of downtime to take care of long-term projects can find themselves relying on unreliable machinery or storage facilities. Farmers also arrange for the storage, transportation, purchase, and sale of produced items, and negotiate and coordinate all agreements relating to them. Note that during the 1970s and 1980s, prices for goods fell to a level where farming provided lower-than-subsistence income. Sizable federal subsidies installed during this period remain in place today, but are scheduled to be phased out by the year 2002.

Paying Your Dues

For some people, owning or running a farm is a childhood dream, fostered in their high school Future Farmers of America (FFA) organizations or their neighborhood 4-H youth educational programs. For many, farming is the family business (nearly 35 percent of all farms are family owned or employ multi-generational workers). Operating larger, less centralized farms, however, requires more study. It is recommended (and sometimes required) that people who want to run their own farms attend a two- or four-year agricultural college located in the state where they want to work. All states have land-grant colleges with agricultural programs whose course catalogs include dairy science, farm economics, horticulture, crop science and animal science. Some people choose to gain certification as an Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) through the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, although these certifications are more encouraged than required. Work is rigorous and challenging and requires a variety of managerial, scientific and practical skills.

Present and Future

Over 90 percent of America's first settlers were farmers, and agriculture will always be a vital profession. The future of farming is tied to the future of agricultural science. As methods of crop-breeding, land rotation, soil enrichment, and shortening growing periods develop, the farmer's job can be expected to get both more specialized and busier. Currently, farmers face difficult decisions; prices for produce and farm goods have been effectively flat, while mortgage rates, lines of credit, cost of machinery and cost of labor have risen. Farming is consolidating, and the old family farm is rapidly giving way to large agribusiness, who trade their goods on the commodities exchange to ensure the best price for their goods.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Duties of the beginning farmer include crop tilling, fertilizing, composting, and harvesting. The new farmer rotates among different jobs, all integral to the practical running of a farm; he may also supplement his income with nonfarm employment. Many take night classes at local agricultural colleges or rural community colleges with agricultural programs, or take courses sponsored by large farming concerns. The variety of tasks undertaken in the first two years is the best part of the job; the physical hazards is the worst-farming ranks among the most dangerous professions, with some 40 percent of all workers losing at least one week during the first two years to injury. Pay is low; the work is taxing, especially during the spring (planting) and fall (harvesting) seasons.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five years into the profession, those who have taken the requisite courses, shown ability in managing other workers, and shown ambition and energy move to positions of management. Those who have found areas of specialization--such as harvesting, storage management, or soil analysis--continue their education through practical conferences and conventions. Pay rises to reasonable levels, but continues to be influenced by meteorological and legislative whimsy.

TEN YEARS OUT

A ten-year survivor of the agricultural production industry has faced growing, business, and distribution challenges. By now, many have purchased or soon will purchase their own land, using their successful experience as an asset to secure financing. On average, ten-year veterans will remain farmers for another thirty-five years.