Organic Farmers


Education and Training Requirements

High School

While in high school, take classes in business, math, earth science, ecology, agriculture (if offered), biology, English, and computers. Foreign language classes can also be useful, as can participation in 4-H or Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs.

Postsecondary Training

Self-employed farmers may have received their training while on the job, either from growing up in a farm family, or through adult on-the-job training, continuing education courses, and programs in agriculture. An increasing number of farmers have an associate's or bachelor's degree in agriculture, which is becoming more important in the business of operating a farm. Degrees can be in farm management or in business with a concentration in agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, all states have a land-grant college or university with a school of agriculture. Students pursuing an agriculture degree typically take classes in agronomy, dairy science, agricultural economics and business, horticulture, crop and fruit science, and animal science. They may also study technical aspects of crops, growing conditions, and plant diseases. If interested in organic dairy farming, course work may include the basics of veterinary science and animal husbandry (which is the care and breeding of farm animals). Other key courses include climate change, the impact of farming on the environment, economic policy (as it relates to farming and farmland), as well as business management and accounting. Computer classes are also relevant as more farming businesses are using computer software programs for record keeping and document production. Many farms offer internships and apprenticeships, in which students can train while on the job, and earn school credit and possibly a small stipend in exchange for their work.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Since 2002 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) has regulated the standards for farms that want to sell organic products. Farms that produce less than $5,000 worth of organic products per year are not required by the USDA to be certified. To receive the organic certification and use the official "USDA Organic" label, at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic and meet the USDA standards for organic production and processes. For some farmers, especially those at beginning and small farms, the USDA certification process can be expensive, and financial assistance may be required. The certification process also requires evidence of an organic farming plan, paperwork to verify the plan, and a certain number of farm inspections. Third-party agents are hired to conduct the inspections of the farmer, the farm, the production process, as well as all who work on the farm.

According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, in 1994 there were approximately 2,500 to 3,000 certified organic farmers in the United States. As of 2016, the number had jumped to 14,217 organic farms, and certified organic farmland could be found in all 50 states.

The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers offers farm operators voluntary certification as an accredited farm manager. Certification requires four years’ experience working on a farm, an academic background—a bachelor’s or preferably a master’s degree in a branch of agricultural science—and completion of courses covering the business, financial, and legal aspects of farm management.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Experience working on a farm under the guidance of a veteran farmer is desirable, and growing up in a farm family is a distinct advantage. Mechanical skills and physical strength are needed to do the heavy lifting and machine maintenance required on the job. Business skills are necesssary to determine the best allocation of resources, keep track of income and expenses, monitor changing prices, plan ahead to take advantage of changing supplies and demand, and serve as sales agent for livestock and crops.

Self-motivation, discipline, detail-orientation, and patience are the all-important character traits needed in organic farming. The self-motivation and discipline are called upon on a daily basis, and are especially crucial to have in the beginning years of farming. Waiting for things to grow—both the produce and the business itself—is where patience comes into play. The work is predominantly outdoors in any kind of weather—be it teeming rain, blazing sunshine, bone-shattering cold, or the three deadly H's (hazy, hot, and humid). A good attitude, strong constitution, and openness to continually learn are extremely helpful attributes to have in this job.

A love of the land and strong desire to work with and get closer to nature are a given in this job. Attention to detail while simultaneously juggling multiple tasks is also important on many levels, from managing the crop production and the farm staff, to managing and promoting the business itself and the products. "Dawn to dusk" does not quite cover the hours required to complete the work; the time commitment goes far, far beyond this. Excellent hand-eye coordination is required, as is the ability to safely handle farm equipment one moment and manage farm animals the next. Physical fitness, stamina, and energy are required and tested constantly.