The property Kevin Liefer and his son, Kirk, cultivate in southern Illinois has been expanding for decades without adding a single manager. These are boom times for farming and a bust for farm jobs.
The 3,600 acres of mostly corn, wheat and soybeans the Liefers hold were about 30 separate, individually operated farms more than 40 years ago, said Kevin. As families left, the homesteads near Red Bud, about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis, melded into one operation.
Older tractors were replaced with models that cultivate more ground and serve as miniature offices, complete with global positioning systems that allow them to steer themselves. Mobile phones enable communication while in the fields.
“There’s so much more you can do now without as much labor,” said Kevin, 58. “The consolidation has been rapid.”
A U.S. farm boom showing few signs of a let-up isn’t translating into more opportunities in one of the most robust areas of the economy. Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers will see the steepest decline of any employment category by 2020, losing a projected 96,000 jobs this decade out of 1.2 million positions, part of a broader trend toward less labor in the sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The drop comes even as agricultural managers have the highest median wage of any of the top 20 declining categories, at more than $60,000 a year. Farm owners like the Liefers are able to manage larger tracts of land without hiring overseers. Full-time farm managers hired by others can handle more property for more clients, said Jerry Warner, a past president of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, a farm- management organization based in Denver.
Many of the fastest-declining U.S. job categories result from industry contraction: post offices closing because of lower mail volume and textiles factories because of outsourcing, for example. Agriculture is an expanding sector with rising profits, even as overall employment, including laborers, is projected to drop 2.3 percent over this decade.
Total planted acreage has risen in seven of the past 10 years, the prices of corn and soybeans reached records last year, and profits for 2012 of $114 billion are estimated to be second only to 2011, even after the worst drought since the 1930s. Farmer debt is near its lowest in at least 60 years of record-keeping while land prices are at an all-time high. Still, all 291,000 of the farm-manager positions expected to become available in the decade up to 2020 — net of those lost — will be replacement jobs, according to the Labor Department.
Farm jobs increasing but farms decreasing
Consolidation tells only part of the story. The number of U.S. farms, which fell by half in the three decades up to 1986, dropped by just 3.1 percent in the past quarter-century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About one- quarter have sales of less than $100,000 annually and don’t need a full-time manager, while larger farms are more easily overseen by one person, said David Anderson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Effective farm managers need to have multiple skills, Anderson said. They must deal with buyers, sellers and regulators of agricultural products, manage complex finances for multimillion-dollar operations, understand chemical and crop technology and like working outdoors, he said.
“The hours aren’t necessarily 8 to 5, and it’s not office work,” he said. “It’s outdoors. It’s snow, ice. It’s being able to see the signs that an animal is sick. You may need to be able to ride a horse. Not just anybody can hop up and do that.”