How to Become an Organic Farmer: Education and Career Roadmap

Should I Become an Organic Farmer?

Organic farmers raise crops using natural pest control and fertilizers as well as other sustainable techniques, such as composting. This profession requires an intimate knowledge of the land and the life cycles of plants and insects. To prepare for an organic farming career, a potential farmer must become acquainted with working outside. Organic farmers spend a good deal of time outdoors, and their work can be physically demanding. A year-round, 7-day work week with long hours is common. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that farming jobs in general will decline over the 2012-2022 decade, but due to the growing popularity of organic goods, organic agriculture is actually on the rise.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Not usually required, but an associate or bachelor's degree may be important
Degree Fields Agriculture, organic agriculture
Experience Experience in farming and horticulture is required
Certification Certification from the USDA is required for operations selling $5,000 worth of organic products per year
Key Skills Strong interpersonal communication, analytical and critical thinking skills; ability to operate machinery, including tractors, balers and irrigation systems; greenhouse skills
Salary (2014) $68,050 per year (median salary for all farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Agriculture.

Step 1: Get Farming Experience

Organic farmers need to have an intimate knowledge of the land and soil they work with. It is important for potential farmers to become familiar with farming processes and get accustomed to working outside. Experience in weeding, tilling, planting and harvesting are just some of the skills a farmer must be proficient in.

Aspiring farmers can begin by obtaining entry-level positions with farms, nurseries, landscaping companies or many other businesses that rely on working the land. Some farms offer formal internships to farmers looking for hands-on experience. The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) offers a program known as ATTRA, which has listings for apprenticeships and internships at sustainable farms.

Step 2: Consider Obtaining a Degree

There are no formal education requirements for organic farmers; however, earning a college degree is becoming increasingly important for modern organic farmers. Many colleges and universities have created organic agriculture degree programs to cultivate this niche sector of farming. Potential organic farmers may earn an associate or bachelor's degree in organic agriculture to learn about food science, economics, farm marketing, crop production and soil management.

Success Tip:

  • Take advantage of any hands-on and extra-curricular farming activities offered at the school. Some schools may have an organic farming club that is designed for students who wish to volunteer and help grow different organic foods. Students may also have the opportunity to sell the foods they grow at a farm stand located on the campus.

Step 3: Get Certified

The developing trend of growing organic foods has led the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to require organic farmers who make more than $5,000 per year to get certified by an accredited agency. Farmers who are not certified cannot label their foods as organic. The USDA provides an organic certification standard that is adopted by state government agencies and private businesses for certifying farmers. NCAT noted that certification prices may vary between agencies in the U.S. that are approved by the USDA.

Once the farmer has chosen a certifying agency, they'll need to submit an application. The application includes detailed information about the specific farming practices and waste management procedures of the individual farm. Once the application is complete, someone will be assigned to complete an on-site inspection to ensure that the farm is legitimate.

Success Tip:

  • Create a Production Plan. Part of the application process requires organic farmers to submit farm plans and answer questions about the operation. Farmers must figure out how to deal with non-organic contamination and other potential crop-threatening events before submitting an application, so planning for these requirements early on could make it easier to complete the certification process.

Step 4: Advance Your Career

Organic farmers who own or lease their own land can expand business by increasing the marketing of their goods or finding a popular niche market. Creating business relationships with local restaurants or starting a CSA (community supported agriculture) program are other ways to increase the success of an organic farming operation.

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