Agricultural workers maintain the quality of farms, crops, and livestock by operating machinery and doing physical labor under the supervision of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers.
Agricultural workers typically do the following:
- Harvest and inspect crops by hand
- Irrigate farm soil and maintain ditches or pipes and pumps
- Operate and service farm machinery
- Spray fertilizer or pesticide solutions to control insects, fungi, and weeds
- Move shrubs, plants, and trees with wheelbarrows or tractors
- Feed livestock and clean and disinfect their pens, cages, yards, and hutches
- Examine animals to detect symptoms of illness or injury
- Use brands, tags, or tattoos to mark livestock to identify ownership and grade
- Herd livestock to pastures for grazing or to scales, trucks, or other enclosures
- Administer vaccines to protect animals from diseases
The following are examples of types of agricultural workers:
Crop, nursery, and greenhouse farmworkers and laborers do numerous tasks related to growing and harvesting grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other crops. They plant and seed, prune, irrigate, harvest, and pack and load crops for shipment.
Farmworkers also apply pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to crops. They repair fences and some farm equipment.
Nursery and greenhouse workers prepare land or greenhouse beds for growing horticultural products such as trees, plants, flowers, and sod. They also plant, water, prune, weed, and spray the plants. They may cut, roll, and stack sod; stake trees; tie, wrap, and pack plants to fill orders; and dig up or move field-grown shrubs and trees.
Farm and ranch animal farmworkers care for live animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, horses, poultry, finfish, or shellfish. These animals are usually raised to supply meat, fur, skins, feathers, eggs, milk, or honey.
These farmworkers may feed, herd, brand, weigh, and load animals. They also keep records on animals; examine animals to detect diseases and injuries; and administer medications, vaccinations, or insecticides.
Many workers clean and maintain animal housing areas every day. On dairy farms, animal farmworkers operate milking machines.
Agricultural equipment operators use a variety of farm equipment to plow and sow seeds, as well as maintain and harvest crops. They may use tractors, fertilizer spreaders, balers, combines, threshers, and trucks. These workers also operate machines such as conveyor belts, loading machines, separators, cleaners, and dryers. Workers may make adjustments and minor repairs to equipment.
Animal breeders use their knowledge of genetics and animal science to select and breed animals that will produce offspring with desired traits and characteristics. For example, they breed chickens that lay more eggs, pigs that produce leaner meat, and sheep with more desirable wool. Other animal breeders breed and raise cats, dogs, and other household pets.
To know which animals to breed and when to breed them, animal breeders keep detailed records. Breeders note animals’ health, size and weight, and the amount and quality of the product they produce. Animal breeders also track the traits of animals’ offspring.
Some animal breeders work as consultants for farmers, but others breed and raise their own animals for sale or future breeding. Breeders fix and clean animals’ shelters, feed and water animals, and oversee animals' health.
Agricultural workers held about 749,400 jobs in 2012.
They usually work outdoors in all kinds of weather. Animal breeders may travel from farm to farm to consult with farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers about their livestock.
Agricultural workers’ work can be difficult. To harvest fruits and vegetables by hand, workers frequently bend and crouch. They also lift and carry crops and tools.
Injuries and Illnesses
Agricultural workers risk exposure to pesticides sprayed on crops or plants. Exposure can be minimal, however, if workers follow the appropriate safety procedures. Tractors and other farm machinery can cause serious injury, so workers must be constantly alert. Agricultural workers who work directly with animals risk being bitten or kicked.
Some agricultural workers, called migrant farmworkers, move from location to location as crops ripen. Their unsettled lifestyles and periods of unemployment between jobs can cause stress. Most agricultural workers are in Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico.
Many agricultural workers have seasonal work schedules. Seasonal workers typically work longer hours during planting or harvesting times or when animals must be sheltered and fed. In 2012, nearly 1 in 3 worked part time.
Agricultural workers typically receive on-the-job training. Many do not need a high school diploma before they begin working, but animal breeders typically need a high school diploma and prior work experience.
Education and Training
Most agricultural workers do not need a high school diploma. They usually receive short-term on-the-job training.
Most animal breeders have a high school diploma, and typically have several years of experience in a related occupation.
Most agricultural workers receive some short-term on-the-job training. Employers instruct them on how to use simple farming tools, as well as more complex machinery. More experienced workers are also expected to perform routine maintenance on the tools they use.
Dexterity. Agricultural workers need excellent hand-eye coordination to harvest crops and operate farm machinery.
Listening skills. Agricultural workers need to work well with others. Because they take instructions from farmers and other agricultural managers, effective listening is critical.
Physical stamina. Agricultural workers need to be able to perform laborious tasks repeatedly.
Physical strength. Agricultural workers must be strong enough to lift heavy objects, including tools and crops.
Mechanical skills. Agricultural workers must be able to operate complex farm machinery. They also occasionally do routine maintenance on the machinery.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Animal breeders typically have prior work experience before they begin interacting with livestock. Ranch workers may transition into animal breeding after they become more familiar with animals and learn how to handle them.
Agricultural workers may advance to crew leader or other supervisory positions. The ability to speak both English and Spanish is helpful for agricultural supervisors.
Some agricultural workers aspire to become farmers, ranchers, or agricultural managers or to own their own farms and ranches. Knowledge of produce and livestock may provide an excellent background for becoming a purchasing agent or buyer of farm products. Those who earn a college degree in agricultural science could become agricultural or food scientists.
The median annual wage for agricultural workers was $18,910 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,050, and the top 10 percent earned more than $29,820.
Median annual wages for agricultural workers in 2012 were the following:
- $34,250 for animal breeders
- $25,860 for agricultural equipment operators
- $25,140 for agricultural workers, all other
- $22,060 for farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural animals
- $18,670 for farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse
Many agricultural workers have seasonal work schedules. Seasonal workers typically work longer hours.
Employment of agricultural workers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2012 to 2022. However, agricultural workers should have good job prospects overall.
Despite increasing international demand for food and meat, fewer agricultural workers may be needed as agricultural and livestock establishments continue to consolidate.
Technological advancements in farm equipment raises output per farm worker, which could also affect employment for agricultural workers. On the other hand, nursery and greenhouse workers might experience some job growth, if the demand for landscaping plants continues.
Job prospects for agricultural workers should be strong as workers frequently leave the occupation due to the intense, physical nature of the work. This is especially true for agricultural equipment operators and crop, greenhouse, and nursery farmworkers. Those who work with animals tend to have a more settled lifestyle because the work does not require them to follow crops for harvest. Prospects will be best for those who can speak English and Spanish.
For more information about agricultural workers, visit
The National Agricultural Workers Survey, U.S. Department of Labor
For more information about agriculture policy and farm advocacy, visit
For more information about the Beginner Farmer and Rancher Competitive Grants Program, visit
National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture
For more general information about farming in the United States, visit
Farm Service Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture