Training, Certifications, Skills, Advancement: Farmers, Ranchers, and Agricultural Managers

Growing up on a family farm and participating in agricultural programs for young people (sponsored by the National FFA Organization, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America, or the 4-H youth educational programs, or other educational opportunities offered by the Extension Service) are important sources of training for those interested in pursuing agriculture as a career. However, modern farming requires increasingly complex scientific, business, and financial decisions. Therefore, even people who were raised on farms must acquire the appropriate education.

Not all agricultural managers grew up on farms or ranches. For these people, a bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in agriculture is important. In addition to formal education, they need several years of work experience in the different aspects of farm and ranch operations in order to qualify for an agricultural manager position.

Students should select the college most appropriate to their specific interests and location. In the United States, all State university systems have one land-grant university with a school of agriculture. Common programs of study include agronomy, dairy science, agricultural economics and business, horticulture, crop and fruit science, and animal science. For students interested in aquaculture, formal programs are available, and include coursework in fisheries biology, fish culture, hatchery management and maintenance, and hydrology. Whatever one’s interest, the college curriculum should include courses in agricultural production, marketing, and economics.

Professional status can be enhanced through voluntary certification as an Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Certification requires several years of farm management experience, the appropriate academic background—a bachelor’s degree or, preferably, a master’s degree in a field of agricultural science—and the passing of courses and examinations relating to business, financial, and legal aspects of farm and ranch management.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need to keep abreast of continuing advances in agricultural methods both in the United States and abroad, as well as changes in governmental regulations that may impact methods or markets for particular crops. Besides print journals that inform the agricultural community, the spread of the Internet allows quick access to the latest developments in areas such as agricultural marketing, legal arrangements, or growing crops, vegetables, and livestock. Electronic mail, on-line journals, and newsletters from agricultural organizations also speed the exchange of information directly between farming associations and individual farmers.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers also must have enough technical knowledge of crops, growing conditions, and plant diseases to make decisions ensuring the successful operation of their farms. A rudimentary knowledge of veterinary science, as well as animal husbandry, is important for livestock and dairy farmers. Knowledge of the relationship between farm operations—for example, the use of pesticides—and environmental conditions is essential. Mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with tools of all kinds are also valuable skills for the operator of a small farm, who often maintains and repairs machinery or farm structures.

Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers need the managerial skills necessary to organize and operate a business. A basic knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping is essential in keeping financial records, while knowledge of credit sources is vital for buying seed, fertilizer, and other inputs necessary for planting. It is also necessary to be familiar with complex safety regulations and requirements of governmental agricultural support programs. Computer skills are increasingly important, especially on large farms, where computers are widely used for recordkeeping and business analysis. For example, some farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers use personal computers to access the Internet to get the latest information on prices of farm products and other agricultural news. Additionally, skills in personnel management, communication, and conflict resolution are equally important in the operation of a farm or ranch business.

High school training should include courses in mathematics and in biology and other life sciences. Completion of a 2-year degree, and preferably a 4-year bachelor’s degree program in a college of agriculture, is becoming increasingly important. But even after obtaining formal education, novices may need to spend time working under an experienced farmer to learn how to put into practice the skills learned through academic training. A small number of farms offer, on a formal basis, apprenticeships to help young people acquire such practical skills.