Help with agricultural career ideas
April 10, 2019 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I started listening to the "Farm to Taber" podcast, which is all about food production and systems, and it has me thinking about switching careers. Currently, I'm a K-12 tutor with a Master's Degree in History. I'm quick on the uptake with math, science, literature, systems of rules, etc. but a bit slow on manual tasks--it would be a sharp learning curve for me to fix tractors or similar. Basically, I want a job that helps feed people, whether that's through making sure things are manufactured and distributed correctly, or that farmers have resources to make their crops thrive. I have zero experience working on a farm or in the farming industry, except that I've taken care of horses and dogs most of my life. What are some ways to dip my toe in the agricultural waters? And what are some interesting careers (with educational / experience requirements, please) to pursue?
posted by Alex Haist to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you'd like to dip your toe before making a big life change -- which I'd very much advise -- then I'd suggest looking for a work-share CSA in your area. With this arrangement, you'd sign up to do something like 3-5 hours/week of farm work, and you'd get a CSA box in return. Not only would it allow you to do some work on a farm, it would also give you a chance to make contact with folks working in ag, who might be able to give you some helpful information and point you in the direction of local resources.

I'd also suggest checking out your local Cooperative Extension. They'll likely offer free or low-cost classes on gardening, composting, and other easy-to-get-started-in topics related to ag. They will also be closely connected to your local agricultural community, and they'll probably have resources and workshops available for folks doing food production. For instance, my local Cooperative Extension recently ran a beginner's workshop and farm tour for folks (both farmers and non-farmers) looking to get into maple production (in your area, it might be something different). At that workshop, we discussed a variety of topics, including forestry, specialty maple equipment manufacturers, maple marketing, etc. -- as well as touring a sugarbush and sugar shack. Getting an overview like that might help you to find a niche that you'd be interested in fitting into, and would also be a way for you to meet others and get to know your community and the resources within it.

Finally, you might check to see if there's a food incubator or farm incubator in your area. These types of organizations will frequently run workshops and have resources for those looking to get into food and/or farming.
posted by ourobouros at 8:36 AM on April 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Look into WWOOFing.
posted by Grandysaur at 8:45 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

There's a whole host of jobs that would involve helping reduce conventional agriculture's impact on the environment, improving public health through nutrition, etc. For instance, I've daydreamed about going back to school to become a soil scientist. But I'm not an expert on these fields, and I suspect you'd spend a lot of time weeping over the sorry state of federal agricultural regulations.

If you are more interested in working with small-scale / organic farms, IMO there is a great need for infrastructure to support farmers and food producers, like distribution cooperatives, shared commercial kitchens, etc. Anything that helps farmers and food businesses reduce capital outlays and spend less time finding a market for their products. These are jobs that would require business skills. I don't think there's any one educational path. You could end up working for a private business, cooperative, nonprofit, or local/state government.

If you just want a sense of what's out there, you should browse Good Food Jobs and see if there are interesting ventures in your area.

And while you're doing all this, consider starting a vegetable garden (or doing a work-share CSA as ourobouros suggests).
posted by toastedcheese at 8:45 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ouroboros has excellent advice. If you want to follow up you can look into university programs in sustainable agriculture and food systems.
posted by Botanizer at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are potentially a lot of different jobs in the nonprofit space which wouldn't require retraining, as long as you can make a compelling case for your interest in the field. There'll be nonprofits working on everything from national-level policy advocacy to encouraging restaurants to use local produce to preserving indigenous foodways. With your background, maybe a research position would be appealing, or if you're not burned out on it, program work focused on introducing kids to the agricultural field.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:59 AM on April 10, 2019

Lots and lots of ag adjacent jobs do not involve manual farm labor. Chemists receive samples and analyze them. Biologists work with animal research. Designers work in marketing and advertising. Shipping logistics specialists help ensure that produce and other goods get from farm to table in good condition and in a timely manner.

Farms use every type of technology you’re familiar with, plus many you’re not. Your background is applicable to some corner of the ag world.

Dr Taber is clear that she is a fan of farms that handle their marketing well and don’t rely on the mills to set their prices. She’s a big fan on co-op model and notes in much of her writing that people of color have a harder time in the ag sector as a result of systemic racism. So I would first suggest finding ALL of the ag companies in your area that are co-op and/or owned by people who are not white. Ask for informational interviews. Check out their career pages on their websites. See if you can arrange farm visits. Look for the places that maybe don’t look super shiny and pretty.

While you keep doing your day job, get more familiar with the history and historicity of American farming. Attend some local planning meetings that address zoning issues around ag - production, packing, growing, these are heavily impacted by government and you’ll see a lot of NIMBY at meetings to address changes. You may find yourself as a policy advocate.

There are literally thousands of different kinds of ag jobs.
posted by bilabial at 9:05 AM on April 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Would you be interested in helping farmers make premium products like jams and jellies, and brand them as upscale? There's a local ag incubator called Terroir in a Jar. They set up a jam factory, which helps farmers by turning their excess produce into delicious shelf-stable products. The jars go back to the farmers to sell at a premium, emphasizing the terroir. This seems like the way to keep local farming alive and thriving.
posted by dum spiro spero at 9:46 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another lateral off of this is working for a food bank. They have complex national and regional distribution systems and often do advocacy and education programs as well. I bet your history skills would be an asset in explaining the reasons why people need food assistance and what particular tactics work best to help them.

Working shifts for a CSA is also an awesome rec, scale affects farming operations and having folks with experience around to talk to will make it much more useful than growing stuff in your own smaller space (but that's also a good option if it's what you can do).
posted by momus_window at 9:53 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

My local CSA is not near a farm, receives delivery once a week, and distributes the produce on that one day. They have a person who organizes members and farm relations, keeps track of the money, applies for grants, deals with community outreach, handles excess food, prods members into their volunteer shifts, keeps the place clean and tidy. This job is part time, I think 2 full days a week?
posted by bilabial at 10:40 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in permaculture design. You can take a 10 day course to get an overview, and then you can work with a mentor to develop more advanced skills like keyline (natural water and irrigation design) or farm layout. Your background in math and science is an asset here. Permaculture is becoming more and more popular
posted by ananci at 1:16 PM on April 10, 2019

I have some happy news! Based on your advice, I emailed the owner of the peach and apple farmer who lives down the road from me and asked if I could follow her around and learn from her in exchange for learning about her business. Instead, she gave me a job as her marketing coordinator. So, I'm gainfully if not lucratively employed in the agricultural industry, and I can now grill her about anything and everything she's up to so that we have good marketing materials.

I also live near UMASS, which is a top ag school, and they have a Forestry program which seems to promise lots of time outdoors interacting with plants and dirt, which is sounding very appealing. So, I'm well on my way to exploring my options. Thanks, guys!
posted by Alex Haist at 6:59 AM on April 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

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