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On and off the farm

Careers in agriculture might be at lab, greenhouse or pond instead of barn

Careers in agriculture might be at lab, greenhouse or pond instead of barn

November 09, 2004|by CHRIS COPLEY

On one hand, an agricultural worker is a farmhand who milks cows daily, plants crops in spring and harvests in fall. Farm employees work outdoors in all kinds of weather, and have to deal with the unpredictable - an early frost, a mare suddenly going into labor, machinery breakdowns.

But as crop and livestock production continues to diversify and be improved by technology, agricultural workers also might be software designers, fish farmers, genetic engineers, greenhouse workers or large animal veterinarians.

"There are so many diversified jobs," said Priscilla Harsh, co-owner of Clopper Orchards in Smithsburg. "Farm kids are getting involved in other agricultural-related fields. My son is an extension agent for Penn State in Gettysburg (Pa.). Another local boy went to an ag school and has gone into selling farm equipment. Another is involved in artificial breeding."

The 'first scientists'

Many farms have a hard time finding workers, according to Jeff Semler, extension educator for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County. Work on a farm is simply not appealing to most modern Americans.

"We have a society in general that looks down on people who work with their hands," Semler said. "Everybody wants to sit in front of a (computer or TV) screen. That's the way the culture is going."

Semler pointed out that there's a lot more to agriculture than tending animals or crops. There's truth in the old saying "farmers were the first scientists." Science and farming go hand in hand.

"There's lots of career opportunities in biotech, pharmaceuticals, food science and food safety, genetics - plant and animal genetics - and veterinary science," Semler said.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 40 percent of agricultural and food scientists work for local, state or federal government research sites. They work on a wide variety of projects: improving crop quantity and quality; controlling pests and weeds; conserving soil and water; developing new consumer products using corn, cotton, soybeans, milk, beef and other farm products.

Growth in greenhouses

The growth in America's suburban middle class has brought additional opportunities for Tri-State area farming operations, Semler said. More farmers are directly marketing their products to consumers. At least one local dairy, South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md., has revived home delivery of milk. Consumers are going to the farm to pick produce during the summer or to pick and purchase seasonal crops or Christmas trees.

"Pick-your-own is big here in strawberries. Also pumpkins," Semler said. "Suburbanites are into farm-fresh commodities, which can be an economic benefit to the farmers. And lots of commodities move across the Internet - hams or cheese or whatever."

Other aspects of direct marketing are landscaping and greenhouses. These two segments of the agriculture industry make up what Semler nicknamed "the green industry." As consumers demand more flowers, decorative plants and young vegetable plants, the green industry is expanding. There are many job openings for people who like to work with plants and like the outdoors.

"As our population becomes more suburban, greenhouses will grow," Semler said. "And they're begging for workers."

Some farms set themselves up as tourist destinations, Semler said. Bed-and-breakfast facilities offer a chance for visitors to stay overnight in the country and, sometimes, even help with chores.

Fish farming

One of the hot segments of modern American agriculture is aquaculture, said Curry Woods, associate professor of aquaculture in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

"According to USDA, at the turn of the century, aquaculture sales reached $1 billion for the first time. That is significant," Woods said.

Half that dollar figure is connected to sales of channel catfish farmed in the South. But another big segment of the aquaculture industry involves ornamental plants and animals.

"Right now, pound for pound, from a dollar-value basis, the most profitable products are ornamental animals and ornamental plants for water gardens," Woods said.

Ray Klinger, vice president of operations at Hunting Creek Fisheries, a wholesale goldfish producer in Thurmont, Md., said goldfish have been raised in Frederick County for more than a century. Recent growth in popularity of water gardens has led to a boom in Klinger's sales.

Hunting Creek grows koi, goldfish and golden orfe, a cold-water ornamental species popular in garden ponds.

Aside from growing fish for food or ornamental use, a growing segment of the aquaculture industry is studying one fish species - zebrafish, a popular aquarium species, Woods said. Zebrafish are a popular striped aquarium species rivaling mice and rats for use in research into embryonic human development. Growing zebrafish is a growing business.

Variety in the workday

Traditional farm work is not for everyone, but it suits Semler just fine.

"I like the fact that no two days are the same," he said. "There's lots of variety. Also, I like to be outside. And there's a little bit of altruism in food production. You're working for the greater good."

Harsh says farm work is not for people who prefer working regular hours for a generous salary. But the farm work is authentic, honest, hard work and its rewards are more than monetary.

"Farming is for people who have an appreciation of land - what land can give you - and the wonder of seeing things grow," Harsh said. "The gratification is in producing something tangible."

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