While the USDA's goals and missions are the same, the role of farmers has changed over the years. Up through the early 1900s, farmers oversaw the production of many crops. Each farmer would plant oats, wheat, corn, and barley, and raise chicken, cattle, and hogs. Many would sell eggs and plant a variety of vegetables. In the mid 1800s, the average size of a U.S. farm was about 80 acres. All work was done by hand, horses, and simple machinery.
That all changed with automation in the 1900s. Farms got bigger, and farmers began specializing in just a handful of crops. Some would be cattle farmers and might also sell soybeans. Others just raised hogs, cows, and corn.
Finding ways to supplement a farm income has become almost mandatory today. Many farmers are opening their farms to the public, attracting city folk and people from nearby small towns who want to spend a day on a farm picking crops. The farmers even welcome school trips, allowing kids to go on tractor rides and watch a cow being milked by hand. Many farms that invite the public to pick fresh fruits, flowers, and vegetables also sell baked goods and cheeses. In addition, farmers may sell their goods at local farmers markets.
Some farmers even open bed-and-breakfasts on their property. In the morning, visitors can feed goats and sheep, see a cow being milked, and take a tractor ride. Children can go to the henhouse to gather eggs, which often are used for that morning's breakfast.
Farming is a tough business. The days are long; farmers usually work from sunup to sundown. Most of the work is outdoors, and if the weather doesn't cooperate, the crops and animals can have a bad year.
Farmers are self-employed. As is true for most independent businessmen, a farmer's income is based on what he produces. Farmers can make anywhere from $50,000 a year to a few million dollars. It all depends on what he produces, the size of his farm, and the demand for the crop. The majority of farmers earn in the $50,000 range.
Farmers must invest a lot of their income in their land and machinery. They also are responsible for paying property taxes, maintenance on machinery and housing, fuel (which can easily cost more than $400 a day for diesel depending on the fluctuating market), seed, fertilizer, health insurance, liability insurance, and crop insurance. Then there are veterinary bills for the animals.
People who farm love being around Mother Nature and the animals. Most farmers are born into the industry. Children of farmers learn the trade at an early age by participating in chores on the family farm. Those who want to go into this profession can take agriculture courses at school. Many high schools in rural communities have 4-H clubs and courses on farming. It is also a smart idea to take business courses at a local university. If you want to see what a farm day is like, you can stay at a farm bed-and-breakfast, but because of liability issues, you will not be able to handle machinery. You can only observe others doing the work.
Farm managers work with farmers, helping them to optimize their finances and maximize their assets. The managers advise farmers on everything from crop and livestock production to commodity marketing, soil conservation, financial analysis and accounting, and real estate brokerage. Farm managers are hired consultants. They must have a business degree with expertise in agriculture and finance. They will devise financial plans and budgets for farmers, and offer guidance on whether farmers should participate in government programs. Basically, they show farmers how to increase profits and lower operating expenses. Nationally farm manager salaries range from a low of $33,000 per year to a medium average of $42,000 per year to a high of $61,000 annually.