Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

Significant Points

* Although farms generating over $250,000 per year in sales make up less than 10 percent of all farms, they supply three-quarters of all agricultural output.
* Self-employed workers—mostly farmers and fishers—account for 39 percent of the industry’s workforce.
* Employment in agriculture, forestry, and fishing is projected to have little or no change.

Nature of the Industry

The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry sector plays a vital role in our economy and our lives. It supplies us and many other countries with a wide variety of food products and non-food products such as fibers, lumber, and nursery items. It contributes positively to our foreign trade balance and it remains one of the Nation’s larger industries in terms of total employment. However, technology continues to enable us to produce more of these products with fewer workers, resulting in fewer farms and farm workers.

Goods and services

Agriculture, forestry, and fishing includes two large subsectors—crop production and animal production—plus three smaller subsectors—forestry and logging, fishing, and agricultural support activities. Crop production includes farms that mainly grow crops used for food and fiber, while animal production includes farms and ranches that raise animals for sale or for animal products. The fishing subsector includes mainly fishers that catch fish and shellfish to sell, while the forestry and logging subsector includes establishments that grow, harvest, and sell timber. The agricultural support activities subsector includes establishments that perform any number of agricultural-related activities, such as soil preparation, planting, harvesting, or management on a contract or fee basis.

Establishments in agriculture, forestry, and fishing include farms, ranches, dairies, greenhouses, nurseries, orchards, and hatcheries. The operators, or people who run these agricultural businesses, typically either own the land in production or they lease the land from the owner. But production may also take place in the country’s natural habitats and on government-owned lands and waterways, as in the case of logging, cattle-grazing, and fishing.

The vast majority of farms, ranches, and fishing companies are small enterprises, owned and operated by families as their primary or secondary source of income. Although large family farms and corporate farms comprise less than 10 percent of the establishments in the industry, they produce three-fourths of all agricultural output. Increasingly, these large farms are being operated for the benefit of large agribusiness firms, which buy most of the product.

Industry organization

Agricultural production is the major activity of this industry sector and it consists of two large subsectors, animal production and crop production. Animal production includes establishments that raise livestock, such as beef cattle, poultry, sheep, and hogs; farms that employ animals to produce products, such as dairies, egg farms, and apiaries (bee farms that produce honey); and animal specialty farms, such as horse farms and aquaculture (fish farms). Crop production includes the growing of grains, such as wheat, corn, and barley; field crops, such as cotton and tobacco; vegetables and melons; fruits and nuts; and horticultural specialties, such as flowers and ornamental plants. Of course, many farms have both crops and livestock, such as those that grow their own animal feed, or have diverse enterprises.

The nature of agricultural work varies, depending on the crops grown, animals being raised, and the size of the farm. Although much of the work is now highly mechanized, large numbers of people still are needed to plant and harvest some crops on the larger farms. During the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons, farmers and their employees are busy for long hours, executing such activities as plowing, disking, harrowing, seeding, fertilizing, and harvesting. Vegetables generally are still harvested manually by groups of migrant farmworkers, although new machines have been developed to replace manual labor for some fruit crops. Vegetable growers on large farms of approximately 100 acres or more usually practice “monoculture,” large-scale cultivation of one crop on each division of land. Fieldwork on large grain farms—consisting of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of acres—often is done using modern agricultural equipment, such as massive tractors controlled by global positioning system (GPS) technology.

Production of some types of crops and livestock tends to be concentrated in particular regions of the country based on growing conditions and topography. Poultry and dairy farms tend to be found in most areas of the country. Most poultry and egg farms are large operations resembling production lines. Although free-range farms allow fowl some time outside during the day for exercise and sunlight, most poultry production involves mainly indoor work, with workers repeatedly performing a limited number of specific tasks. Because of increased mechanization, poultry growers can raise chickens by the thousands—sometimes by the hundreds of thousands—under one roof. Although eggs still are collected manually in some small-scale hatcheries, eggs tumble down onto conveyor belts in larger hatcheries. Machines then wash, sort, and pack the eggs into individual cartons. Workers place the cartons into boxes and stack the boxes onto pallets for shipment.

Aquaculture farmers raise fish and shellfish in salt, brackish, or fresh water, depending on the requirements of the particular species. Small fish farms usually use ponds, floating net pens, raceways, or recirculating systems, but larger fish farms are actually in the sea, relatively close to shore. Workers on aquaculture farms stock, feed, protect, and otherwise manage aquatic life to be sold for consumption or used for recreational fishing.

Horticulture farms raise ornamental plants, bulbs, shrubbery, sod, and flowers. Although much of the work takes place outdoors, in colder climates, substantial production also takes place in greenhouses or hothouses. The work can be year-round on such farms.

Workers employed in the forestry and logging subsector grow and harvest timber on a long production cycle of 10 years or more, and specialize in different stages of the production cycle. Those engaged in reforestation handle seedlings in specialized nurseries. Workers in timber production remove diseased or damaged trees from timberland, as well as brush and debris that could pose a fire hazard. Besides commercial timberland, they may also work in natural forests or other suitable areas of land that remain available for production over a long duration. Logging workers harvest timber, which becomes lumber for construction, wood products, or paper products. They cut down trees, remove their tops and branches, and cut their trunks into logs of specified length. They usually use a variety of specialized machinery to move logs to loading areas and load them on trucks for transport to papermills and sawmills.

People employed in the fishing subsector harvest fish and shellfish from their natural habitat in fresh water and in tidal areas and the ocean, and their livelihood depends on a naturally replenishing supply of fish, lobster, shellfish, or other edible marine life. Some full-time and many part-time fishers work on small boats in relatively shallow waters, often in sight of land. Crews are small—usually only one or two people collaborate on all aspects of the fishing operation. Others fish hundreds of miles offshore on large commercial fishing vessels. Navigation and communication are essential for the safety of all of those who work on the water, but particularly for those who work far from shore. Large boats, capable of hauling a catch of tens of thousands of pounds of fish, require a crew that includes a captain, or “skipper,” a first mate and sometimes a second mate, a boatswain (called a deckboss on some smaller boats), and deckhands to operate the fishing gear, sort and load the catch when it is brought to the deck, and aid in the general operation of the vessel.

The final subsector of agriculture, forestry, and fishing includes companies that provide agricultural support services to establishments in the other subsectors. On farms that primarily grow crops, these activities may include farm management services, soil preparation, planting and cultivating services, as well as crop harvesting and post-harvesting services. Other support services companies provide aerial dusting and spraying of pesticides over a large number of acres. They may also perform post-harvesting tasks to prepare crops for market, including shelling, fumigating, cleaning, grading, grinding, and packaging agricultural products. Typically, such support services are provided to the larger farms that are run more like businesses. As farms get larger, it becomes more economical as well as necessary to hire specialists to perform a range of farm services, from pest management to animal breeding. Establishments providing farm management services manage farms on a contract or fee basis. As more farms are owned by absentee landowners and corporations, farm managers are being hired to run the farms. They make decisions about planting and harvesting, and they do most of the hiring of farmworkers and specialists.

The agricultural support services subsector also includes farm labor contractors who specialize in supplying labor for agricultural production. Farm labor contractors provide and manage temporary farm laborers—often migrant workers—who usually work during peak harvesting times. Contractors may place bids with farmers to harvest labor-intensive crops such as fruit, nuts, and vegetables or perform other short-term tasks. Once the bid is accepted, the contractor, or crew leader, organizes and supervises the laborers as they harvest, load, move, and store the crops.

Establishments that supply support activities for animal production perform services that may include breeding, pedigree record services, boarding horses, livestock spraying, and sheep dipping and shearing. Workers in establishments providing breeding services monitor herd condition and nutrition, evaluate the quality and quantity of forage, recommend adjustments to feeding when necessary, identify the best cattle or other livestock for breeding and calving, advise on livestock pedigrees, inseminate cattle artificially, and feed and care for sires.

Source: bls.gov, lifesciencesearch.com, fiordland.org.nz, oklahomafarmreport.com, ars.usda.gov, water-sos.org, lubavitch.com, research4development.info

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