Job Descriptions, Definitions Roles, Responsibility: Farmers, Ranchers, and Agricultural Managers

American farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers direct the activities of one of the world’s largest and most productive agricultural sectors. They produce enough food and fiber to meet the needs of the United States and produce a surplus for export.

Farmers and ranchers own and operate mainly family-owned farms. They may also lease land from a landowner and operate it as a working farm. The type of farm they operate determines their specific tasks. On crop farms—farms growing grain, cotton, and other fibers, fruit, and vegetables—farmers are responsible for preparing, tilling, planting, fertilizing, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting. After the harvest, they make sure the crops are properly packaged, stored, or marketed. Livestock, dairy, and poultry farmers must feed, and care for the animals and keep barns, pens, coops, and other farm buildings clean and in good condition. They also plan and oversee breeding and marketing activities. Horticultural specialty farmers oversee the production of ornamental plants, nursery products—such as flowers, bulbs, shrubbery, and sod—and fruits and vegetables grown in greenhouses. Aquaculture farmers raise fish and shellfish in marine, brackish, or fresh water, usually in ponds, floating net pens, raceways, or recirculating systems. They stock, feed, protect, and otherwise manage aquatic life sold for consumption or used for recreational fishing.

Responsibilities of farmers and ranchers range from caring for livestock, to operating machinery, to maintaining equipment and facilities. The size of the farm or ranch often determines which of these tasks farmers and ranchers will handle themselves. Operators of small farms usually perform all tasks, physical and administrative. They keep records for management and tax purposes, service machinery, maintain buildings, and grow vegetables and raise animals. Operators of large farms, on the other hand, have employees who help with the physical work that small-farm operators do themselves. Although employment on most farms is limited to the farmer and one or two family workers or hired employees, some large farms have 100 or more full-time and seasonal workers. Some of these employees are in nonfarm occupations, working as truck drivers, sales representatives, bookkeepers, and computer specialists.

Agricultural managers manage the day-to-day activities of one or more farms, ranches, nurseries, timber tracts, greenhouses, and other agricultural establishments for farmers, absentee landowners, or corporations. Their duties and responsibilities vary widely, but are concentrated on the business aspects of running a farm. On small farms, they may oversee the entire operation, while on large farms they may oversee a single activity, such as marketing. Agricultural managers usually do not perform production activities; instead they hire and supervise farm and livestock workers, who perform most of the daily production tasks. In these cases, managers may establish output goals; determine financial constraints; monitor production and marketing; hire, assign, and supervise workers; determine crop transportation and storage requirements; and oversee maintenance of the property and equipment.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers make many managerial decisions. Farm output is strongly influenced by the weather, disease, fluctuations in prices of domestic and foreign farm products, and Federal farm programs. In crop production operations, farmers and managers usually determine the best time to plant seed, apply fertilizer and chemicals, harvest, and market. They use different strategies to protect themselves from unpredictable changes in the markets for agricultural products. Many farmers and managers carefully plan the combination of crops they grow so that if the price of one crop drops, they will have sufficient income from another to make up for the loss. While most farm output is sold to middlemen—primarily food processing companies—some farmers, particularly operators of smaller farms, may choose to sell their goods directly through farmers’ markets, or use cooperatives to reduce their financial risk and to gain a larger share of consumers’ expenditures on food. For example, in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), cooperatives sell to consumers shares of a harvest prior to the planting season, thus freeing the farmer from having to bear all the financial risks and ensuring the farmer a market for the produce of the coming season.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers also negotiate with banks and other credit lenders to get the best financing deals for their equipment as well as their livestock and seed. They must also keep abreast of constantly changing prices for their products and be able to manage the risk of fluctuating prices. Those who plan ahead may be able to store their crops or keep their livestock to take advantage of better prices later in the year. Those who participate in the risky futures market, where contracts on agricultural goods are bought and sold at specified prices in the future, can minimize the risk of sudden price changes by buying futures contracts that guarantee they will get at least a certain price for their agricultural goods when they are ready to sell.

Like other businesses, farming operations have become more complex in recent years, so many farmers use computers to keep financial and inventory records. They also use computer databases and spreadsheets to manage breeding, dairy, and other farm operations.