Education and Training: None
Salary: Varies—see profile
Employment Outlook: Fair—see profile
Definition and Nature of the Work
Farm laborers work on all kinds of farms in all sections of the country. Laborers perform routine tasks that involve the care of animals and crop cultivation. Their specific duties vary, depending on the kind of farm for which they work. Most full-time laborers work for large farms, since smaller farms only employ laborers on a seasonal or day-to-day basis.
Farm laborers who are full-time workers on the same farm year-round generally perform several duties. These duties vary from season to season and from farm to farm. If they work for farms that raise animals, they may be in charge of feeding these animals and keeping the pens and barns clean. They also operate machinery, such as automatic milking machines or feed conveyors. On crop farms laborers do much of the plowing, fertilizing, and harvesting of the crops. Farms that raise fruits and berries employ laborers to supervise part-time workers who pick these crops. During the winter months they help to prune, or cut back, the trees and bushes. Workers also plant new trees and bushes and drive tractors that turn over the weeds between the rows.
Apart from their daily duties, laborers also maintain and repair farm equipment. They repair fences, paint buildings, and build sheds and barns as part of routine farm maintenance.
Migrant farm workers travel from job to job. These workers are usually involved only in harvesting crops. They pick fruits and vegetables that are too delicate to be harvested by machine. Migrant workers follow the harvest season from one state to another. They usually start in the southern states and move north as crops become ready for harvest. In the winter, for example, they may work in Florida picking citrus fruit. In late fall they may pick potatoes in Maine.
Migrant workers and day laborers often work together. Day laborers are part-time farm workers who work during harvest season. Unlike migrant workers, they rarely travel from state to state. These laborers depend on the seasonality of crops and therefore work on several farms during the year. They also do non-farm work.
Farm laborers may also find work at companies that own heavy farm equipment. Farm equipment operators run equipment that their firms contract, or rent, to farms to do specific kinds of farm work. They operate equipment that harvests crops or spreads chemicals and fertilizers. These machines are usually too expensive for a single farm to own. The operators may, for example, drive soybean harvesters or hay balers or operate threshers that harvest wheat. Like migrant workers, farm equipment operators may travel from state to state. Workers who operate wheat harvesting equipment may start working in Oklahoma in the early summer and travel through to North Dakota just before the first snowfall. Other traveling jobs may include working for companies that employ equipment operators to apply fertilizers or weed and insect killers to crops on several farms in one large geographic area. Like other farm laborers, these workers also maintain and make repairs to the equipment they operate.
Education and Training Requirements
There are no specific education requirements for farm laborers. Nearly all learn at least some of their skills on the job. Many high schools and vocational schools in rural areas offer courses in farming methods. High school shop courses that cover carpentry and equipment repairs are valuable to anyone who wants to work on a farm. Some colleges offer courses that deal with farming, animal science, farm technology, business, finance, and economics. State and federal departments of agriculture and colleges sometimes give short courses on farming methods.
Getting the Job
State employment offices can provide assistance in finding a job as a farm laborer. Job openings on farms are also advertised in newspaper want ads. Friends or relatives who live in farming communities can help. Check feed stores and farm supply and small equipment stores for information about job openings on farms. Migrant workers start by traveling from farm to farm with more experienced groups of farm laborers.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Experienced farm laborers can become farm owners, managers, and supervisors. They can also use their experience in jobs related to farming. They may, for example, work for stores or firms that sell goods and services to farmers. Some go into business for themselves by renting or buying their own farms. To do so, they must have or be able to borrow the necessary money, and have keen business sense.
The need for full-time farm laborers who live and work on a single farm is expected to grow more slowly than average. Machinery and firms that contract equipment and labor are replacing these workers. Job opportunities are expected to be good for laborers who are willing to work for these firms and specialize in limited areas of farm work. Migrant workers are expected to be fairly in demand, although harvesting machinery is replacing them on some types of farms.
Farm laborers who work full time on a single farm may work alone or with a few other workers. Those who live where they work usually put in longer hours than those who live away from the farm. Full-time laborers on cattle and poultry farms usually work regular hours. Those who work on farms that raise crops and fruit may have busy seasons followed by seasons when the workload is lighter.
Laborers employed by equipment leasing firms usually work alone or in small crews. Their hours also vary with the seasons. If their firm does business in several states, they may travel at least part of the year.
Migrant workers and day laborers may work in small crews or in crews of several hundred workers. They often work long hours when the weather is good. But when it rains, they may not be able to work at all. Migrant workers usually live in housing supplied by their employers. The quality of this housing varies considerably.
Farming is hard and sometimes dangerous work. Many farmers are injured when they work with farm machinery. Although machinery has reduced much of the hard labor, most workers must do some heavy lifting every day. Despite these hardships, farm laborers enjoy their work. They like to be outdoors near plants and animals. Some farm laborers, particularly migrant workers, belong to labor unions.
Earnings and Benefits
Farm laborers who work full time earn more than those who work at seasonal jobs. Seasonal workers either earn their wages on a piecework basis or are paid the minimum wage of the state in which they are working. Full-time workers who work on a piecework basis usually earn more than those who receive an hourly wage. The median hourly earnings of farm laborers is $7.45 per hour. Crop farmers earn an average of $7.70 per hour. Farm and ranch animal farmers earn an average of $8.31 per hour. Equipment operators earn an average of $8.88 per hour. Some farm laborers receive room and board in addition to their wages.
Where to Go for More Information
National Farmers Union
5619 DTC Parkway, Ste. 300
Greenwood Village, CO 80111-3136
National FFA Organization
6060 FFA Dr.
Indianapolis, IN 46268
Benefits vary widely. Very few workers get health insurance and paid holidays and vacations. Some may receive milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and meat free of charge or at reduced prices. Some seasonal workers can qualify for Social Security pensions.