The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industry 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 top industries in terms of total employment. However, technology continues to enable us to produce more of these products with fewer workers, even in the face of stagnant prices for output, resulting in fewer farms and farmworkers.
Establishments in this industry include farms, ranches, dairies, greenhouses, nurseries, orchards, and hatcheries. But production also takes place in the country’s natural habitats and on government-owned lands and waterways, as in the case of logging 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 (those generating more than $250,000 per year in gross annual sales) and corporate farms comprise less than 10 percent of the establishments in the industry, they produce over half of all agricultural output. Increasingly, these large farms are being operated for the benefit of large agribusiness firms, which buy most of the product.
The agriculture sector of this industry is divided into two major segments, animal production and crop production. Animal production includes establishments that raise livestock, such as beef cattle, sheep, and hogs; dairy farms; poultry and egg farms; and animal specialty farms, such as apiaries (bee 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.
Production of some types of crops and livestock tends to be concentrated in particular regions of the country, on the basis of growing conditions and topography. For example, the warm climates of Florida, California, and Arizona are well suited for citrus fruit production. The Southern States are the major growers of tobacco, cotton, rice, and peanuts, while the Northeast, from Maine to New Jersey, produces blueberries, maple syrup, and apples. Cranberry bogs are found mainly in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Hogs, grains, potatoes, and range-fed cattle are major products in the Plains States, where cattle feedlots also are numerous. In the Southwest and West, ranchers raise beef cattle. In Washington State, apples are an important crop. In California, most vegetables and fruits are prominent, as well as grapes for wine. Poultry and dairy farms tend to be found in most areas of the country.
The nature of agricultural work varies, depending on the crop 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 employed workers are busy for long hours, 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 massive, climate-controlled tractors and other modern agricultural equipment. In some cases, teams of operators with tractors, combines, or other agricultural equipment travel from one farm to another during harvest time in a practice known as “custom harvesting.”
Workers on farms that raise other products, particularly those raising animals, have work that must be done all year long. On dairy farms, for example, the cows must be milked and fed every day and their stalls cleaned. Cows may then be taken outside for exercise and grazing. Dairy workers also may plant, harvest, and store crops such as corn or hay to feed the cattle through the cold of winter or the drought of summer.
Though the nature of the work on large livestock ranches in the West and Southwest still entails the kind of activities-such as branding and herding-often seen in western movies, the use of modern equipment and technology has changed the way the work is done. Branding and vaccinating of herds, for example, are largely mechanized; and the use of trucks, portable communications gear, and geopositioning equipment now is common and saves valuable time for ranchers. The work on such establishments still tends to be seasonal and to take place largely outdoors. Common activities include raising feed crops, rotating cattle from one pasture to another, and keeping fences in good repair.
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. Eggs still are collected manually in some small-scale hatcheries, but, in larger hatcheries, eggs tumble down onto conveyor belts. 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. 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 climates with cold seasons, substantial production also takes place in greenhouses or hothouses. On such farms, the work can be year-round.
Although most agricultural establishments sell their products to food processing, textile, and food retailing companies, some cater directly to the public. For example, some fruit and vegetable growers use the marketing strategy of “pick-your-own” produce, set up roadside stands, or sell at farmers’ markets. Nurseries and greenhouses, which grow everything from flowers to tree seedlings, provide products to lawn and garden centers as well as to retail establishments, landscaping contractors, and other businesses; some also sell directly to individual consumers.
Workers employed in the forestry and logging sector 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 produce seedlings in specialized nurseries. Workers in timber production remove diseased or damaged trees from timber land, as well brush and debris that could pose a fire hazard. Besides commercial timber land, 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 the timber in order for it to become lumber for construction, wood products, or paper products. They cut down the 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 the logs to loading areas and load them on trucks for transport to papermills and sawmills.
People employed in fishing harvest fish and shellfish from their natural habitat in fresh water and in tidal areas and the ocean, and depend for their livelihood 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 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.