A beginner’s guide to careers in agriculture and farming

Some people find the idea of a career in agriculture hilarious.

They think it is all mud, wellies and sticking your arm up the business end of a cow.

But this shows a lack of appreciation for the complexities of modern agriculture, which offers a broad range of careers across an increasingly diverse range of businesses.

Agriculture is an exciting global industry that uses cutting-edge technology, is constantly innovating and is an important contributor to the national economy.

What’s more, it is actively looking to recruit bright, ambitious young people.

Eight compelling reasons to work in agriculture

  1. Great employment rates: 96% of graduates leaving Harper Adams University are employed within six months.
  2. Labour shortage: The industry reckons it needs 60,000 new people to work in the sector by 2020.
  3. The “office” is nice: Working in agriculture involves living and working in some of the most beautiful parts of the countryside.
  4. People like it: A Farmers Weekly survey found 88% of those who work in the supply trade would recommend agriculture as a long-term career choice.
  5. Good long-term prospects: People are always going to need to eat and the global population is growing.
  6. Pay is better than you think: Average salaries in agriculture exceed the national average.
  7. You’ll live longer: The Office for National Statistics found people who live in the countryside live longer than people who are based in urban areas.
  8. You don’t need to come from a farm: There are thousands of jobs that don’t require you to come from a farming background.

What sort of jobs are there?

The range is endless.

There are jobs based on farms, but you can also work in agriculture as an engineer, scientist, researcher, business advisor, trader, manager, retailer, food manufacturer or vet. 

Examples include:

Farmworker cleaning milking clusters

© Tim Scrivener

Farmworker – These are the people who do practical work on a farm and it can involve working with crops, livestock or both.

Farmworkers need to be able to cope with physical work and need to be adaptable because the job will be different from week to week, depending on the time of year.

The work can involve operating machinery in order to cultivate fields, drill crops, apply chemicals and then harvest them.

Alternatively, workers might be feeding animals, caring for sick or newborn stock or milking dairy cows.

Why agricultural careers are good bet

  • UK shoppers spend £198bn on food and drink products each year
  • 86% of shoppers want to buy traceable British food that has been produced on British farms.
  • The UK has doubled exports over 10 years to reach £12.8bn in 2014

Source: NFU

Farm manager – Farm managers need to have strong practical and business skills, as well as a strong technical understanding of growing crops and rearing livestock.

Their job is to plan, organise and manage all the activities on a farm, including staff.

This can involve practical work such as operating machinery and looking after stock, but is also is likely to require financial and strategic planning, budgeting, buying and selling.

Farm consultant – A consultant offers advice and support to farmers or landowners to help them run their business in a more profitable and efficient way.

They may specialise in business management advice, which could involve helping to plan business structure, budgeting, cashflow and meeting regulatory requirements.

Or they can be more of a technical specialist where they offer advice on what crops to grow, what to feed livestock and when best to sell the end product.

Agronomist holding crop in his hands

© RESO/REX Shutterstock

Agronomist – Agronomists work with farmers to make sure that the crops they grow are healthy and produce as much yield as possible.

As plant specialists, they are sometimes described as “crop doctors” because they decide what chemicals should be used in order to control weeds and to keep crops disease free.

They have to be familiar with a complex regulatory framework and need to physically examine crop fields by walking through them on a regular basis during the growing season to make sure they spot early signs of any potential problems. This means the job can be physically as well as mentally challenging.

Man holding feed

© Tim Scrivener

Feed nutritionist – Feed specialists advise farmers on what to feed their animals in order to maximise growth, reproduction, health and performance.

They will meet dairy, beef and sheep farmers to evaluate the chemical and nutritional value of feeds and formulate a ration that will help them optimise costs and performance from the feed.

The ability to understand and communicate technical information is, therefore, important.

Getting the feeding of an animal right makes the difference between making a profit and making a loss.

Agricultural sales – There is need for people to sell a wide range of goods to farmers – from farm machinery, to feed, fertiliser and seed.

The role requires people who are able to listen to the needs of the farmer, share information and advice and make recommendations regarding the products that would best suit the customer.

Sales people in agriculture are expected to be specialists in their areas and are often used by farmers as an adviser, as well as provider of goods.

As such, the ability to build strong long-term relationships with farmers is vital. They will also need to identify and develop new business opportunities.

Grain being loaded

© Tim Scrivener

Grain buyer – Grain buyers are the people who buy wheat, barley, oilseed rape and other crops from farmers for use in the production of food for humans and animals.

Buyers will work closely with farmers in order to negotiate the purchase of their crops and will communicate the latest market information to them to help them come to a marketing decision.

This is likely to involve lots of telephone contact, but also visits to a client’s farms to meet face-to-face.

Pie chart showing workers in key areas of the food and farming industry

What’s the pay in farming like?

The average person in the UK earns a gross annual salary of £27,200.

Agricultural jobs compare pretty favourably to that, according to the results of an exclusive survey of 1,300 Farmers Weekly readers, carried out in April 2015 in association with recruitment consultancy De Lacy Executive.

Ag supply trade salaries

People working in the agricultural supply trade had an average annual salary of £33,583 and 13% of respondents indicated they earned more than £50,000/year.

Many of these workers also received other benefits, such as getting their mobile phone bill paid or a company car.

Recruitment agents report that top agronomists, with an established customer base, can earn as much as £100,000/year.

Farmworker wages

The survey showed the average annual salary for a farmworker was a little below the national average, coming in at £26,193.

However, this was before any benefits were taken into account and 87% of people had some sort of additional benefits including overtime, accommodation, mobile phone or a company vehicle.

The figure also masked some higher wages with workers on larger 500ha+ arable farms earning an average annual salary of £34,849.

Pay for workers on livestock farms tended to be the lowest.

What about the hours?

Agriculture requires commitment and anyone looking for a typical 9-to-5 existence might not find it the best fit.

Even people who work in agricultural-related businesses can have times of the year when they have to put in longer than standard hours because of the seasonal nature of farming.

Typical week v busy week

According to the Farmers Weekly/De Lacy’s survey, people working in farm-based roles worked an average of 51.6 hours in a typical week and an average of 84.6 hours in a busy week.

Those working in ancillary industries worked an average of 44.5 hours in a typical week and 64.6 hours in a busy one.

What sort of people does agriculture suit?

Much depends on what exact sort of job you are considering.

People who are looking at hands-on farming need to be/have:

  • Comfortable working outside in all weather
  • Good practical skills
  • Able to solve problems without assistance
  • Self-motivated
  • Understanding of how machines work and are maintained
  • Good numerical skills to be able to calculate application rates or business costs

Workers in the supply industry will be required to have many of the same skills, but will probably also need to be comfortable in a team environment, able to meet targets and have good communication skills.

Overall, agriculture is an industry that suits people with an interest in technology, science, the environment and business.

How can I find out more about agricultural careers?

Farming press

One of the best ways to get an insight into the industry is to keep an eye on the farming press. Farmers Weekly offers discounts on subscriptions to students and also has a dedicated careers page.

Social media

Another way to learn more about agriculture is to talk to people who are already in the sector and start to pick their brains.

The farming community is active on Twitter, so that can be a good place to start. Search for some established hashtags such as #clubhectare, #agrichatuk and #teamdairy to find people to follow.

Visit a farm

Every June the farming industry holds an event called Open Farm Sunday which enables the public to visit a farm to find out more about modern agriculture. Events are free and take place all over the country.

Join a Young Farmers’ Club

If you are 26 or under, consider joining your local Young Farmers’ Club.

The organisation welcomes people who aren’t from a farming background, but have an interest in farming and the countryside.

Some – although not all – of the activities are farm-based, so you’ll have an opportunity to pick up new skills while having fun and making new friends.

How can I get work experience?

Work experience is invaluable and there are some agricultural courses that will require you to have some practical farm experience before starting. 

Many of the ancillary industries also like people who have completed some work on a farm as it gives them a greater appreciation of the practical challenges facing their customers.

To approach a local farmer to ask if there is a possibility of work experience, write a short letter that explains who you are, why you are interested and what help you might be able to offer. 

Do some research first though as there’s no point in sending a letter to a dairy farm asking to help out with lambing.

If you get no rely from the letter, follow up with a polite phone call a couple of weeks later.

Lunchtime can be a good time to call because farmers are more likely to consider your request if they aren’t in the middle of an important job.

If you are over 16 and able to travel away from home, the National Sheep Association compiles a list of sheep farmers willing to host agriculture and vet students to help at lambing time.

Accommodation and meals are usually provided.

What qualifications are needed to work in agriculture?

The agricultural industry offers openings at every level. People can enter the sector after GCSEs or at a post-graduate level.

There is a growing professionalism in the industry and the stereotype of it being a place for people with few academic qualifications is outdated.

In fact, the Farmers Weekly/De Lacy survey showed 73% of all farmworkers had A-levels or above with 39% having either a higher national diploma, bachelor’s degree or higher degree.

In the supply industry the figures were even higher – 83% had A-levels or above, and 11% of the workforce held a post-graduate degree.

Choices at GCSE and A-level

It has been estimated that 60% of agricultural careers are based on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, so if you want to keep you options open these are a good choice at GCSE or A-level, along with business studies.

Further education in agriculture

When it comes to choosing a university course, if you know what part of the food and farming industry you want to work in already then there are specialist courses offered at a range of land-based colleges and universities around the country.

Alternatively, companies in the agricultural supply chain are increasingly recruiting people with geography, biology, botany, language, business and law degrees.

Listen to an audio interview with someone who someone who studied geography as a degree but now works for a major agrochemical company:

Can you do an agricultural apprenticeship?

People wanting to combine work with study have the option of an apprenticeship, which are growing in popularity in the farming sector.

Apprentice and farmer

© Image Source/Rex Shutterstock

Apprenticeships are available to 16- to 24-year-olds and usually take between one and four years to complete.

Intermediate, advanced and higher level apprenticeships are offered with the latter being for roles which include an element of management.

Apprentices normally work for four days in the business and then go to their local college for a formal training day one day a week.

The weekly wage for a 16- to 20-year-old on an agricultural apprenticeship is about £145, rising to about £200 for an 18-to-20-year-old.

Agricultural career case studies

Jack Hill – commercial technical manager, Bayer CropScience

Katrina Swatton – business change officer, Farmcare

Jess Sloss, technical manager, Red Tractor and Nick Davies, operations manager, AB Agri

Will Wilson, business development manager, Bock UK

Becky Miles – dairy extension officer, AHDB Dairy (previously Dairy Co)

Rob Daniel – agronomist, Agrii

Daniel Sedgewick – wheat trader, Gleadell

Jason Spalding, machinery service technician, Ben Burgess

 Where can I get more information?