With more than two million farms operating nationwide, one might think the term "farmers" aptly describes the group of individuals that own and run these operations. The truth is, though, a single word can't possibly capture the range of occupations and certifications that fall into the agriculture category. From agronomy to management, today's farm professionals can cultivate fields far broader than their home territory - and a bevy of training and certification opportunities make such career development an eminently doable process.
Licensing and Certification Opportunities in Agriculture [top]
Accredited Farm Manager (AFM)
Individuals earning this designation have attained the pinnacle of industry education and training, according to standards established by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA). Upon completing a meticulous ASMRA qualification program, an AFM will possess the expertise to:
- Maintain a profitable, sustainable enterprise
- Exercise sound business practices in production management
- Understand environmental issues in terms of regulatory compliance
- Know those government activities impacting agriculture, such as taxes, legislation and subsidies
As detailed in ASMRA literature, mastery of the above administrative tasks allows the AFM to manage the following functions - a feat the untrained farmer might well find formidable:
- Budget and cash flow
- Rate of return analysis
- Crop/livestock and futures marketing
- Farm plan design/implementation
- Operator selection
- Risk management analysis
- Lease negotiation/implementation
- Seed, fertilizer and production input selection
- Precision farming
- Insurance products
- Irrigation analysis and technology
- Biotech recommendations
- Government program analysis
- Environmental compliance
- Tax regulation
- Land/property transactions
- Expert witness testimony
- Permanent plantings
- Soil conservation
A designation of the American Society of Agricultural Consultants, a CAC is qualified to provide expert services to all manner of businesses - from small and mid-size farms to conservation agencies. Deemed by some pundits to be the fastest growing profession in the industry, a CAC performs the following functions:
- Advises clients regarding day-to-day operational issues
- Assesses future opportunities for farm enterprises
- Assists with finances, business structure, human relation issues, succession planning, report generation and staff management
- Works with owners regarding production rates
- Identifies and assesses technical needs
- Facilitates business planning, government grant applications and new business ventures
- Collects and analyzes crop and financial data
- Organizes and manages field trials, demonstrations, training and farm walks for clients, colleagues, partnering organizations and other interested persons
- Communicates in writing and orally (e.g. technical notes, press releases), as needed
- Markets and promotes on the client's behalf
- Keeps abreast of industry developments as related to clients
The American Society of Agronomy, which offers formal certification, defines an agronomist as a plant and soil scientist who strives to improve crop and farm productivity in conjunction with efficient pest and weed management. While a number of these individuals are self-employed, many work for federal, state and local government agencies, as well as for private industry and agricultural colleges. A CPAg's professional responsibilities may include:
- Field research regarding all phases of agricultural production
- Consultation with farm owners on systems and protocols
- Grading of all agricultural crops
- Documentation of critical data, such as project reports and research outcomes
- Studies at laboratories, experiment stations or on working farms, with the goal to develop and improve field crop varieties regarding quality, yield, climate/soil adaptation and disease/pest resistance
- Design and execution of solutions for problems such as low crop yields, weeds, insect/pest infestations, disease and erosion without harm to the environment, yet with maximum economic productivity
Formal credentialing as a Certified Crop Advisor comes by way of the American Agronomy Society's intense certification program. Because this title covers a wide range of services and disciplines, pinning down just a few job functions can be tricky.
For instance, some consultants may work in solo operations specializing in single crops, while others are staffers in bigger companies and deal with a broad array of fruits, vegetables and grains. What's more, pundits suggest that with today's rapidly evolving agricultural technologies, the role of the consultant is becoming increasingly important to farm businesses of all sizes. The following list describes some of the many functions a Certified Crop Consultant may expect to perform:
- Pest identification and control; integrated pest management
- Soil fertility analysis and amendments
- Seed and variety selection
- Irrigation management
- Global Information System consultation
- Management of biotechnology advances, such as resistance management strategies for biotech plants
- Biointensive scouting services in connection with programs targeting pests, predators, diseases, populations, weed hosts etc.
- Watershed management
- Animal waste management
- Research trials
Soil surveying involves an in-depth understanding of physical, chemical, mineral and biological characteristics applying to pedology (i.e. the science of soil origin, character and utilization). Agricultural professionals who wish to pursue this career direction can earn CPSS/CPSC designations through the Soil Science Society of America, which provides a thorough, systematic certification process. Once credentialed, an individual can perform a broad array of tasks:
- Study soil characteristics and classifies soils based on specific types
- Present advice on urban and rural land usage
- Perform chemical analysis on a soil's micro-organism content to identify microbial activity and its chemical/mineral correlation to plant growth
- Explore responses of individual soil types to soil management practices, including crop rotation, fertilization regimens and industrial waste protocols
- Perform experiments in laboratories, experimental stations or in the field to ascertain optimum soil types for specific crops
- Consult for commercial agriculture businesses and industry
- Advise government agencies dealing with agriculture, industry and the environment
- Act as an expert witness in litigation involving industries or individuals
- Act as a professional media liaison, providing and interpreting scientific and agricultural information as appropriate
The National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees and regulates the national production, management and labeling standards for all fruits, vegetables, grains and livestock deemed organic agricultural products. The NOP also sanctions those foreign and domestic certifying agents who inspect organic products and handling facilities to assure they meet USDA standards.
Given the avid public interest in "natural" foods, some farm owners might well consider going organic a forward-thinking strategy - and likely, it is. Still, it's important to note that formal certification is a legal mandate for operations marketing more than $5,000 worth of organic products annually. Because the process is lengthy, USDA analysts advise would-be organic growers to remember that certification:
- Requires diverse crop rotations, green-manuring, cover crops, livestock manure, composting and other sustainable practices
- Precludes contamination of organic production by the accidental mixture of organic and conventional products, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
- Mandates precautions against pesticide drift from off-farm and other contaminating sources
- Requires heavy documentation in order to insure organic integrity
- Forbids use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other prohibited substances three full years preceding the first organic crop harvest
- Requires management of livestock in a non-cruel manner, with attention to natural behavior (e.g. restricted physical alternations; pasture land for ruminants; outdoor access)
Agricultural Industry Training and Continuing Education [top]
While some scientific disciplines related to the agriculture industry require four-year degrees, other advanced credentials are available through professional organizations and continuing education programs. The sections below explore specific procedures toward obtaining such certifications, including those described above, accessible to virtually any eligible farm professional or owner.
How to Pursue Specific Certifications
The American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA) serves as the primary certifying body for several specialties. Chief among these is the Accredited Farm Manager designation, which requires an-in depth course of instruction, as well as a number of prerequisites. These include:
- Four years of farm/ranch management experience or equivalent. One calendar year equals 1,600 hours; with at least 600 spent managing rural property for pay, and the balance related to a farm/ranch management field .
- A four-year college degree or equivalent. Current membership in ASFMRA prior to submitting an accreditation application
- Completion and submission of the AFM Exam application and fee
- Submission of one farm management plan demonstrating the applicant's ability to generate plans according to ASFMRA standards.
- Successful completion, with passing grades, of ASFMRA courses in management, consulting and ethics
- Passing the final AFM Accrediting exam.
Detailed information, checklists, and downloadable forms can be found on the ASFMRA Web site. Additionally, information can also be found on the Web site for other ASFMRA certifications, such as Accredited Rural Appraiser (ARA), Real Property Review Appraiser (RPRA), and Accredited Agricultural Consultant (AAC).
The American Society of Agricultural Consultants (ASAC) is a non-profit organization striving to raise the public image, as well as the ethical standards, of all professional agricultural consultants. The group deems certification as the most effective means of achieving this goal. To that end, the following section summarizes guidelines and protocols for earning a CAC designation, which is renewable every five years, according to ASAC guidelines:
- Five years agricultural consulting experience. One calendar year's experience consists of a minimum 600 hours of paid consulting services in an agricultural or agribusiness operation, with the balance (1,000 hours) spent in a consulting-related discipline
- A four-year college degree or equivalent.
- Submission of ne agricultural consulting plan illustrating the applicant's ability to meet ASAC standards for such documents. Completion, with passing grades, of the following ASAC courses:
- Standards & Ethics for Agricultural Consultants
- Communications for Ag Consultants
- Consulting Services Delivery & Consulting Practice
- Completion of an additional 40 hours of specialized study.
- Current membership in ASAC prior to applying for certification
- Completed CAC application for the final accrediting exam, with applicable fee
- Pass final CAC Certification exam
For more information regarding the Certified Agricultural Consultant designation and ASAC membership, visit the ASAC Web site.
Of all the advancement opportunities the field of agriculture
offers, the CPAg designation, renewable annually, demands the
most stringent educational qualifications. The American
Society of Agronomy, which sponsors this voluntary program,
maintains that this hard-won credential sets the gold standard
for professional skills and deportment. CPAg candidates must
possess, at minimum, the following qualifications:
A Bachelor's of Science degree in Agronomy or a closely related field Five years of professional, paid work experience in agronomy. Applicants with master or doctoral degrees may substitute two years of professional experience per degreeAt least 70 percent of professional work experience in agronomy must be from activities such as farm management, extension, consulting, research and teaching Pass the International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) Exam Provide five work/professional references
- Submit application and applicable fee
Enrolling more than 12,000 Certified Crop Advisors in its membership, the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) maintains that certification is a demonstration of the highest standards of education, dedication and experience. Unlike the CPAg designation, CCA guidelines are a bit more relaxed. Applicants must meet the following qualifications:
- Two years of crop-advising experience with a B.S. degree in agriculture
- OR four years of crop-advising experience without a degree
- Passing grades on two comprehensive exams
- Transcripts, references and other documentation supporting eligibility
- Signed copy of the CCA Code of Ethics agreeing to uphold its tenets
Upon certification, CCAs must earn 40 hours continuing education units every two years and pay a yearly maintenance fee. A booklet with all the instructions and application forms, as well as contact information, can be found on the ASA Web site.
The Soil Science Society of America is the certifying body for professional soil scientists and/or classifiers. Candidates for the CPSS and CPSC advanced designations must:
- Have a minimum of five years experience in soil science, with a B.S. degree in this area, OR
- a minimum of three years experience in soil science, with an M.S. or Ph.D. in this area
- Pass the Fundamentals of Social Science Exam and the Professional Practice Exam
- Document education and experience with supporting transcripts and references Agree to uphold a professional Code of Ethics
- Complete 40 hours of continuing education (upon certification) every two-years, with payment of an annual maintenance fee
A booklet with additional information on certification, including the application, reference forms, and the Code of Ethics, can be found on the Society's Web site.
Organic Farm Certification
The process for obtaining organic farm certification is not easy, but it is clear-cut. Certification is through the National Organic Program (NOP) of the US Department of Agriculture. The NOP specifies the steps that must be followed in obtaining certification:
Find a suitable accredited certifying agent. The NOP Web site provides an updated list of qualified certifying agents nationwide.
Submit an application. The application must include the type of operation to be certified; what organic product is being farmed; a history of what substances have been used on the land for the last 3 years; and a description of the Organic Substance Plan in use, including monitoring practices and recordkeeping systems. Prepare for an on-farm inspection by a qualified inspector. The inspector will send a detailed report to the certifying agent. Complete the final review. Upon receipt and review of all information the certifying agent will grant certification, and issue a certificate. Applicants must also keep accurate post-certification records on all organic products for 5 years. A booklet is available on the NOP website with complete information on the certification process.
Agricultural professionals who have earned advanced credentials in farm management, agronomy, soil science or other specialty areas, can't simply frame their certificates and forget about them. Rather, most disciplines require continuing education units to maintain specialist status - no simple matter for many busy pros. What's more, some farmers may wish to take a class or two just to brush up on certain skill areas, such as pest management, animal husbandry or soil amendment.
The following section highlights some of the best ways to access agricultural courses, whether online or in a classroom.
Sponsored by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program this continuing education curriculum targets farm professionals, as well as extension agents and other agricultural specialists. Certified Crop Advisors may use these courses as continuing education credits toward maintaining certification.
Offered online, the curriculum covers the basic principles of sustainable agriculture, agroecology, and strategic farm/ranch planning and marketing, among other subjects. Classes, which combine activities, real-life examples and links to other Web resources, are self-guided and individually paced, so participants may access them at their convenience.
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
Universities nationwide offer a range of continuing education
opportunities towards recertification, as well as for individual
enrichment. The United States Department of Agriculture provides
links to dozens of programs sponsored by institutes of higher
education, as well as by community, professional and government
organizations. Through its National Agricultural Library's
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, information and
publications on sustainable agricultural and other resources can
be found. Colleges and Universities
Listed alphabetically by state, this directory provides contact information for cited institutions, a brief program summary and links to individual Web sites.
Farm business development, pest management, turning a profit, seed-saving - these subjects represent just a few of the many continuing education options available through non-university sources. In addition, some classes fulfill CEU requirements for various professional certifications. Entries, listed alphabetically by state, include contact information, course descriptions and links to pertinent Web sites.
Cooperative Extension System
The Cooperative Extension System (CES) is a national non-credit educational network which serves as a portal to continuing education opportunities for agricultural professionals, small business owners and the community at large. It is a program of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Administered through state/territory offices at land-grant universities, on-site experts provide research-based information and classes on a variety of subjects. The CES site provides links to the system's individual offices, as well as a virtual map of branch locations.
From a continuing education standpoint, the Web site, eXtension is an invaluable tool in locating local classes and courses applicable to recertification requirements, as well as for practical enrichment. What's more, leading educators from 74 land-grant universities nationwide provide an interactive learning environment - along with a cutting-edge data base - on the site itself.
By entering the term "continuing education" in the eXtension search box, users may access a continuously-updated list of classes and workshops, many approved for continuing education credit. Certified Crop Advisers, for instance, can earn CEUs through the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center, which offers self-directed online study via reports and Webcasts.
Agricultural Trade Association Programs
Many agricultural trade associations have affordable and accessible continuing education programs. The National Farmers Union sponsors several adult education programs, such as their Beginning Farmers Institute. The American Society of Agronomy, together with its sister organization, the Soil Science Society of America, offers Continuing Education through online seminars as well as self study programs which satisfy continuing education requirements for its professional certifications.