Employment in the agricultural industry is expected to be relatively flat through 2028, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers face a 1 percent decrease in employment, while employment of general agricultural workers will not change. The DOL predicts that several trends should help farmers and other specialized workers in this industry. Some farmers are prospering by focusing on growing specialty crops, participating in farmer-owned and -operated cooperatives, or switching to all-organic farming practices in response to public fears about the effects of pesticides and fertilizers used in traditional agriculture. The output of organic, small farms is highly sought after in many urban markets, where farmers sell their products at weekly farmers markets or through community-supported agriculture initiatives. This kind of market should provide opportunity for growth in this industry in the coming years.
Fish farming and aquaculture will also become more important and more profitable in the coming years. Growth in aquaculture is spurred by declining ocean catches due to overfishing and the growing demand for seafood items, such as shrimp, salmon, and catfish. Pollution, such as that caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, also affects ocean fishing.
Another important development in agriculture involves methods of processing grains to make new products and helping farmers to deal with crop surpluses. In many agriculture-based states, adding value to agricultural products is the largest creator of wealth and jobs. The pursuit of new uses for farm crops will provide many jobs for those involved in processing and will also provide farmers with new markets for their crops. For example, corn is used for ethanol, sweeteners, feed products, corn oil, and lactic acid. Studies are underway that will expand corn's uses to include adhesives, paper and packaging, nonprescription medical products, and even plastic.
Food safety is an important issue that will impact jobs for food scientists, agricultural scientists, and inspectors. Outbreaks of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease in livestock in Europe have prompted heightened efforts to detect and prevent these problems in the United States. Despite China's efforts to curb African Swine Fever (ASF) by killing more than 1 million pigs, by 2019 it had spread to Vietnam, Mongolia, and Cambodia. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicated that, while the immediate impact of ASF was in East Asia, it had the potential to affect global markets. Other safety concerns include the West Nile virus, anthrax, E. coli bacteria in livestock and meat products, and residual pesticides in plant products. Efforts are also being made to protect this industry from agri-terrorism.
Genetic engineering in both plant and animal agriculture is being hotly debated in the agricultural and political communities, as well as among consumers. Some proponents of genetic engineering believe that engineering crops and livestock to be more resistant to disease, insects, and other problems and to have longer shelf lives will greatly benefit farmers. However, the effects of genetic engineering on the environment and on humans, as well as the long-term effects on the agricultural products themselves, have not yet been determined. Research, experimentation, and debate are likely to continue for several decades.
Some analysts are predicting that farmers of the future may earn more income by dealing in renewable energy, particularly selling wind power. There are also possibilities for ethanol, biodiesel, and the generation of electricity from the methane produced by livestock feeding operations.
More diverse career opportunities are available for those with advanced degrees in agriculture-related fields. Agricultural scientists, agribusiness professionals, and equipment technicians will see their jobs expand to involve high-tech methods of conservation, planting, tilling, and treating farm crops.
Farm managers and operators will need extensive understanding of new farming methods and equipment as well as computer-aided operations. In the past, fields were treated as if every acre had the same needs; scientists and farmers have discovered that the soil and plants are better treated as individually as possible. Precision farming through computers, satellites, and sensors treats each acre of soil and each plant for its own specific needs. With computers in tractors, farmers are able to determine exactly how much fertilizer, herbicide, etc., is needed by the soil and plants. Farmers can then treat the soil and plants with even more effective fertilizers and pesticides, and their genetically engineered crops will be more resistant to drought and disease.
The agriculture industry faced labor shortages and a shift in demand for food and crops as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Research and Marketers discussed the impact of the pandemic on the agriculture industry in a February 2021 report, including the fact that farmers have experienced a steep decline in the turnaround of customers and the loss of traditional marketing channels. This has resulted in produce that could not be distributed, which in turn had to be destroyed in some cases. A consumer shift in perspective on food and dining out reduced demand for higher-cost, luxury food items while the need for staple and ready-to-eat foods rose. The ability of the agriculture industry to adapt to these changes will correspond with a great effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus among farmers, who are often in close contact with each other during the work day. Also of note is that in the U.S., many farmers are 65 years old or older, a segment of the population that is especially vulnerable to coronavirus.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS), a 10 percent decline in net cash farm income in the U.S. is expected in 2021 compared to the previous year. Total net farm income for 2021 is forecast to be about $111.4 billion. In addition, direct payments by the government to farmers are expected to decline by more than 46 percent in 2021, due to "lower anticipated payments from supplemental and ad hoc disaster assistance for COVID-19 relief."