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Agriculture Goes Corporate

There are fewer people working on farms today than there were 30 years ago. The number of people working on farms has been declining for a long time. Yet there's lots of opportunity within agriculture!

"The demand is not back on the farm for farmers, but in industry," says Gary Storey. He's a professor of agriculture. The school's graduates are getting jobs, but not in farming per se.

The same is true elsewhere. "Few of the graduates from the college enter farm production careers. More than half pursue careers in business, with both agricultural and non-agricultural firms," notes the website for the college of agricultural and environmental sciences at the University of Georgia.

The Big Picture

Economists say farming is one of the occupations with the greatest job decline into the 21st century. Part of the reason is improved tools and methods. These make it possible to produce more food with fewer people. Another factor is the growth of "corporate" farms. These large farms are run like corporations, and the small family run farms cannot compete. It's for this reason very reason that there are fewer people working in farming.

But don't let the predictions throw you off. Agriculture is a big industry. It doesn't just refer to farming, but farm services and agribusiness. There are lots of careers within agriculture.

Let's look more closely at the trend of corporate agriculture. During the last 30 years, the trend away from small family farms to larger co-operative or corporate farms has been growing.

"The days of the sole proprietor are gone," says Lyle Elmgrin of the college of agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan. "Instead of having five little farms, there will be one or two big ones in the future."

It's all a matter of economics, says economist James Franklin of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It's an economy of scale sort of thing," Franklin says. New technology, like improved irrigation, better fertilizer and faster seed planters and harvesters, has increased farm production.

"Now there's equipment available to farm larger farms at a cheaper cost per acre," Franklin says. "But because the equipment is expensive, you need the farm to be much larger to make it economical."

And the bigger the farm is, the lower its costs of operation. "The bigger farms have more market power in terms of size," Elmgrin says. "Farms have more buying clout if they are bigger."

Different Career Paths

The typical farm of today often is vastly different from those of 30, and even 20, years ago, notes economist Randy Ilk in an article entitled The Changing Face of Farming. The move to larger corporate farms has put self-employed farmers out of work and increased demand for skilled farm employees or contractors. Rather than being worked by unpaid family members, the farms of today and tomorrow will be run by consultants and employees.

"There is a long-term trend away from family farming to agribusiness type farming," says Franklin.

The larger corporate farms are often headed by managers who contract out the running of the farm to different people. These consultants give advice on things like pesticide application, soil testing, or test crops to find problems. As a result, the field of agricultural services has grown both in Canada and the United States.

Farm managers, rather than farmers, now make decisions and oversee crop production on larger farms. These managers are corporate employees who are paid a steady wage, rather than depending on crop yield for their earnings like self-employed farmers.

There's another aspect to corporate farms, besides ownership. It has to do with acting like a corporation.

"The challenges...are going to be very critical -- farm managers are going to have to deal in a corporate manner," says Storey. "They will have to deal in a much more coordinated manner with the food industry."

That is, they will have to produce products that meet contractual standards for a variety of factors related to safety and convenience, such as saturated fats, chemical and pesticide use. More and more, farmers have to produce specific commodities.

"The future farm manager is very businesslike with a strong sense of legal obligations in terms of contractual commitments," says Storey.

So being a farm manager will require more education and training than ever before. Not only will you require a business understanding, but also understand the biology and chemistry of farming.

Storey urges students to ensure they get work experience while doing their studies in agriculture. The easiest way to do this is to enroll in a co-operative education program. (This does not mean you learn about co-operatives -- it means you have work terms interspersed with your academic studies.)

Storey says a co-op education gives a student contacts in the industry and meaningful experience. It also results in a higher starting salary for students.

Although employment in farming is declining, it is not taking the whole agricultural industry down with it. New opportunities in agricultural services and agri-food await those who can make the shift.


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