Agricultural Extension Agent
Agricultural extension agents present information about industry advances that may positively impact local farmers and livestock producers.
Agricultural extension agents travel throughout their region or district to provide the latest industry information to farmers, ranchers, community groups, and youth groups. They may present information on scientific advances, farm management, marketing, production, and other topics that are relevant to agricultural businesses operating in their area.
Agents must be familiar with the types of agricultural operations that are taking place in their territory. These pursuits may include beef production, dairy farming, irrigated crop farming, fruit farming, egg production, horse breeding, swine production, and more. Agents must also be familiar with the technical terminology, equipment, and other concerns related to each area of production.
Significant travel may be a part of the job, especially if the agent is assigned a large territory. Agents may visit farms, ranches, hatcheries, dairies, stables, orchards, fields, bee farms, aquaculture facilities, and a variety of other agricultural business locations during the course of their day. Agents may also be required to attend a variety of community activities such as conventions, fairs, college events, camps, and 4-H shows.
Agricultural extension agents may be required to work evenings and weekends as their situation demands, though many agents are able to work normal day shift hours. Work for this position may take place both indoors and outdoors, so agents must be prepared to deal with changing weather conditions and temperature extremes.
Agents must also exercise due caution when working around large animals in the field. Taking proper safety precautions can prevent potentially serious injuries from occurring. A solid knowledge of animal behavior can be invaluable for those agents who liaise with animal producers.
There are many employers that hire agricultural extension agents, though they are usually affiliated with government agencies at the federal, state, or local levels. Agricultural extension agents may also find employment with land-grant universities, research organizations, and community education groups. Some agents also teach courses through their university or community college.
After working as a field agent, agricultural extension personnel may advance to positions of more responsibility such as multi-county positions, directorships, or program leadership roles. Some extension agents also become involved with 4-H programs and other youth organizations by taking a supervisory role.
Education and Training
Aspiring agricultural extension agents must complete significant educational requirements to even be considered for a position. An entry-level position in the field of agricultural extension requires a Bachelor’s degree at minimum. Master’s degrees are preferred for many positions and greatly enhance an applicant’s resume.
The degree that an extension agent holds may be in one of many areas including education, agriculture, animal science, or other related fields. Coursework that provides training in communications, technology, public relations, agricultural marketing, mathematics, and life sciences prepares the aspiring extension agent well for this career path. New agricultural extension agents generally complete additional training courses once they are hired before they begin their field work.
Agricultural extension agents may also join a variety of national and local professional membership groups. The National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) and the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents (NAE4HA) are two such groups that may provide valuable information, education, and industry contacts.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the average salary for extension agents holding a Bachelor’s degree was $44,293 in December 2010. Extension agents holding a Master’s degree averaged $57,889 in 2010. Those holding a Ph.D. degree fared the best with an average salary of $69,375.
Of course, starting salaries for new agents are markedly lower. In Kentucky, for example, new extension agents with a Bachelor’s degree and no work experience start out at a base salary rate of $32,000. Those with a Master’s degree and no work experience start out at a base salary rate of $36,000. In North Carolina, new extension agents started out at a similar salary of $32,807 with a Bachelor’s degree and a salary of $38,124 if they held a Master’s degree.
The agricultural extension agent career path should remain a solid option for those candidates who have a background in farming or production and the skill to educate professionals in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth for agricultural positions should be about as fast as the average for all careers from 2008 to 2018.
Individuals with advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or Ph.D., will continue to have the best opportunities for advancement in the field.