Agricultural consultants, sometimes known as agricultural extension service workers, live in rural communities and act as resources for farmers on a range of topics from agricultural technology to the issues facing the modern rural family. They are employed by either the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or by the Department of Agriculture and the agricultural colleges in that state. Agricultural consultants advise farmers on improved methods of agriculture and agricultural work such as farm management, crop rotation, soil conservation, livestock breeding and feeding, use of new machinery, and marketing. They assist individuals wishing to start their own farms, provide the most current agricultural advancements to the community, and speak to the community or local government groups on agricultural issues. They also supervise the work of family and community educators and young people’s clubs such as 4-H. This government-sponsored program is called the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES).
In the late 18th century, President George Washington decided to establish an educational agency of the federal government dedicated to assisting the nation’s farmers. Washington’s proposal eventually developed into what is now known as the Department of Agriculture.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln promoted the Morrill Act, which established land grant colleges. Under this act, each state was given 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative in Congress. The state was to sell the land and use the proceeds to build colleges that would specialize in education for agriculture and engineering.
Once established, the state agricultural colleges were faced with the task of compiling enough data to develop an agricultural curriculum that would be of use to the American farmer. Under the Hatch Act of 1887, experimental stations were created. These agricultural laboratory settings were devoted to gathering information regarding soils, crops, livestock, fruits, and machinery. They became sources of information for both agricultural colleges and farmers.
Land-grant colleges became important resources for agricultural data and education. However, it soon became clear that it would be more effective to send people into the field who were familiar with the farmers’ work and who were educated in the agricultural sciences than to expect farmers to leave their work or come from remote areas to attend college classes. Thus, the role of the agricultural consultant came into being.
The Cooperative Extension Service was developed and placed in operation in 1914 on a federal basis by the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. The service was opened to any state that wished to join the educational project on a cooperative basis, and most states accepted the opportunity. Because of this, every state agricultural college in the nation today has an extension service as one of its major departmental classifications.
In 1994, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act created the CSREES, which expands the research and higher education functions of the former cooperative State Research Service and the education and outreach functions of the former Extension Service.
Inside the USDA
Professionals and technicians with agricultural education and training can find work in a number of USDA programs, including the following:
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) (http://ars.usda.gov): The principal in-house research agency of USDA.
National Agricultural Library (http://www.nal.usda.gov): Part of the ARS; a major international source for agriculture information; one of four national libraries in the country.
Economic Research Service (http://ers.usda.gov): Provides information about agriculture and natural resources.
National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://www.nass.usda.gov): Administers USDA's program for collecting and publishing timely national and state agricultural statistics.
Agricultural consultants teach agricultural subjects at places other than college campuses. The aim of these educational programs is to teach agricultural workers to analyze and solve agricultural problems. They cover such topics as soil and crop improvement, livestock, farm machinery, fertilizers, new methods of planting, and any other subject that may be of assistance to the farmer. Classroom settings are avoided. Rather, the consultants work on-site, possibly while the farmer is engaged in planting or harvesting, or in small evening meetings of five or six farmers. Occasionally, classes are offered in more formal settings during which the consultant speaks before larger groups and makes presentations.
County agricultural agents work closely with federal agricultural agents in gathering information to be presented to the farmers. Information on agronomy (the theory and practice of soil management and crop production), livestock, marketing, agricultural and home economics, horticulture, and entomology (the study of insects) may come either from the state agricultural college or from the CSREES. The county agricultural worker’s job is to review the new information, decide what is most pertinent to local operations, and then present it as effectively as possible to the farmers in that particular area. The county or federal extension service agent’s work is primarily educational in nature and is aimed at increasing the efficiency of agricultural production and marketing and the development of new and different markets for agricultural products.
County agricultural agents also work closely with family and community educators (FCEs), who assist and instruct families on ways to improve their home life. This work ranges from offering advice and suggestions on preserving fruits and vegetables to improving health care and nutrition, assisting in balancing family budgets, and handling family stress. The FCE is responsible for keeping current in every area relating to the rural home and for sharing this information with families in a particular county or group of counties.
4-H Club agents organize and direct the educational projects and activities of the 4-H Club, the largest outof- school youth program in the United States. Nearly seven million youths participate in 4-H Clubs in rural and urban settings. 4-H educational programs focus on building lifelong learning skills that develop youth potential. An extensive set of programs is designed to engage youth in healthy learning experiences, increasing selfesteem, and problem-solving skills. Programs address stress management, self-protection, parent-teen communication, personal development, careers, and global understanding. Youth are encouraged to explore science, technology, and citizenship. 4-H Club agents analyze the needs of individuals and the community, develop teaching materials, train volunteers, and organize exhibits at state and county fairs. They also introduce children and adolescents to techniques in raising animals and plants, including breeding, husbandry, and nutrition.
Due to technological advancements in electronic communication, there are interesting opportunities for careers in communications with the USDA Extension Service. There is a degree of specialization involved, especially at the federal level. Federal agricultural consultants often become program leaders who are responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with various land-grant colleges, universities, government agencies, and private agencies involved in agriculture. In some cases, they also become educational research and training specialists responsible for developing research programs in all phases of consulting work. The results of these programs are shared with the various state agencies.
Subject matter specialists develop programs through which new information can be presented to the farmers effectively. Educational media specialists condense information and distribute it as it becomes available to the states for use in their local extension programs. These consultants may be designated extension service specialists. An extension service worker who is in charge of programs for a group of counties is known as a district extension service agent.
You should follow your high school’s college preparatory program and take courses in English, government, foreign language, and history. Also, be sure to take courses in mathematics and the sciences, particularly biology and physics. Computer courses will also be beneficial. Take any economics courses available, along with accounting and business classes, as agricultural consultants are actively involved in farm management.
To do this work, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree with a major in agriculture or economics. If you hope to join the on-campus staff at your state’s agricultural college, you’ll need at least a master’s degree. College courses usually required for this work include English, history, chemistry, biology, economics, education, sociology, and speech, as well as animal science, crop production, horticulture, soils, and farm management. A number of colleges have developed regular agricultural extension curriculums to be followed by those hoping to enter the field.
After finishing college, county agents are kept up to date on the latest programs, policies, and teaching techniques through in-service training programs run by state agricultural colleges and the Department of Agriculture.
You’ll need a background of practical farming experience and a thorough knowledge of the types of problems confronting farmers, members of rural communities, and their families. Farmers naturally feel more comfortable seeking advice from people whom they feel have a complete understanding of their work.
You must be a good teacher and should enjoy working with people. You must also be assertive, yet diplomatic, and have a particular affinity for farmers and their problems. In addition, you will be expected to organize group projects, meetings, and broad educational programs that both adults and young people involved in agriculture will find stimulating and useful. You’ll need the professional interest and enthusiasm that will enable you to keep up with the huge amount of new agricultural information constantly being released. You must be willing to learn and use the latest teaching techniques to disseminate current agricultural practices and knowledge to local residents.
To get a sense of the job, you can read the pamphlets and occupational information brochures published by the USDA about this field, and you can request meetings with your local agricultural agent. Any of the state agricultural colleges will send materials or release the name of the local agent for interested students.
Another way to prepare to explore this field is to join groups such as 4-H, National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America), and the Boy or Girl Scouts. You may also volunteer to work at an extension office. It may be possible to visit with farmers or others engaged in agriculture to hear their impressions of the work carried on by the agricultural consultants in your particular county.
Federal agricultural consultants are employed by the USDA to assist county extension officers and supervisors in planning, developing, and coordinating national, regional, and state extension programs. They are headquartered in Washington, D.C. County agricultural agents may be employed jointly by the Department of Agriculture and the agricultural college in each state.
County agents may also specialize, especially in those counties employing more than two or three agents. Many counties with diverse agricultural businesses and farms will often have five or more agents. A single county may employ specialists in fruit and grain production, dairy, poultry production, farm machinery, pest control, soils, nursery management, conservation, and livestock.
While your college’s placement service may be of some help in finding a job, you will need to apply to the director of the extension service at the agricultural college in the state in which you hope to work. If a job vacancy is available, the director of the extension service will screen the qualifications of the various applicants and submit the names to a board or council responsible for making the final selection.
Competent consultants, as a rule, are promoted fairly rapidly and early in their careers. The promotions may be in the form of positions of higher responsibility within the same county, reassignment to a different county within the state, or an increase in salary. Many agents, after moving through a succession of more demanding extension jobs, join the staff at the state agricultural college. Many directors of extension services began their careers in this way.
It is also possible to branch out to other areas. Agricultural consultants often go into related jobs, especially those in industries that specialize in agricultural products. The training they have received and their background in agriculture makes them excellent candidates for many jobs in the agricultural industry.
The earnings of agricultural consultants vary from state to state and from county to county. Most USDA professionals start out at the GS-5 level (government pay grade), which in 2005 ranged between $24,667 and $32,084 annually, depending on education and experience. Agricultural consultants then move up through the government pay grades, earning more. GS-9 level, for example, had a starting base pay of $37,390 in 2005. With some years of experience with the USDA, and with additional education, consultants can advance to GS-14, which in 2005 paid between $76,193 and $99,053 a year. Most consultants are eligible for other benefits such as paid vacations and sick days, health insurance, and pension plans.
This work is often both mentally and physically taxing. Agricultural consultants will find themselves faced with numerous problems requiring their assistance in the field for long periods of time. They may be in their office handling routine matters every day for a month and then not work in the office for the next six weeks. (Consultants usually have a private office where they can speak in confidence with those who seek assistance.) As a rule, agricultural consultants spend about half of their time in the field working with farmers on specific problems, scheduling or conducting group meetings, or simply distributing new updated information. They usually drive from 500 to 1,500 miles per month while on the job. The work may be hard on the consultant’s family, since evening meetings are required, and the agent is often invited to weekend events as well. For example, agents may conduct small informal meetings on Monday and Tuesday nights to discuss particular problems being faced by a small group of farmers in the county. They may be home on Wednesday, work with a students’ 4-H Club on Thursday, conduct another meeting on Friday, and then judge a livestock show at the county fair on Saturday.
Hours for consultants are not regular, and the pay is not particularly high considering the number of hours agents are required to work. But this work can be very rewarding. There is great satisfaction to be found working with people who genuinely appreciate the time, advice, and assistance the agent brings.
The work of agricultural consultants is, naturally, heavily dependent on the employment of farmers and farm managers, and the U.S. Department of Labor predicts a decline in employment for these workers through 2014. As farms consolidate and there are fewer farm families, the need for agricultural consultants may also decline. However, consultants may find opportunities working with rural non-farming families and various suburban residents who are interested in specialty areas such as urban horticulture and gardening.
As the farming industry is becoming more complex, those consultants with the most thorough education and training will have the best job prospects. The idea of agricultural consulting programs is spreading to many foreign countries. Job opportunities may come from a need for U.S. county and federal agents to assist their counterparts in other countries in setting up and operating agricultural consulting programs.
For More Information
To learn about CSREES and to access a list of land-grant universities, contact
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service
1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Room 4008,
Washington, DC 20250-2216
For more information on opportunities and education in the agricultural field, contact the following organizations:
Families, 4-H, and Nutrition
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington DC 20250-2225
National FFA Organization
National FFA Center
PO Box 68960
Indianapolis, IN 46268-0960